In-house counsel are being brought more frequently into the business decision-making process, according to Cynthia Dow, who specializes in corporate counsel recruiting at the executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates in New York.
"In-house lawyers at top companies really do have a seat at the table," due to the increasing importance of regulatory compliance and intellectual property issues, Dow added.
As a whole, technology company attorneys are better paid. Median salaries for general counsel around the country have increased slightly, from about $1.51 million to $1.55 million between 2011 and 2012 according to Redwood City-based Equilar, an executive compensation data firm.
However, technology, media and telecommunications companies have the highest-paid head attorneys in the country, with a median income of about $1.68 million, despite having the third-lowest revenues of the eight industry groupings used by Equilar.
Whitaker offers his experience at Tesla as an example of what's expected of in-house lawyers today.
"A good general counsel will figure out the key points where business and legal issues intersect and doing their job should propel the business forward," Whitaker said.
At Tesla, that included coming up with a plan to sell cars in the 27 states where manufacturers are not allowed to sell directly to the public and instead must use separate dealers.
At SanDisk, which Whitaker said has one of the top five patent portfolios in the world, his operational focus is centered on monetizing that through licensing, enforcement and other means.
"Aspirationally, this has always been a goal," said Whitaker, referring to the business roles of attorneys. "But in recent years, internal legal departments have been much more successful in achieving that.
And the technology world, including Silicon Valley, has been much more adept at bringing the two sides together, he said. "It's no longer sufficient to serve a purely old-school, risk-management function."
Joshua Sisco writes for law.com, a Daily Report affiliate