General counsel salaries stagnated and bonuses slumped amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented year of upheaval. But while the overall pay landscape was gloomy, legal chiefs in certain segments of the entertainment industry managed to catch some rays.

Perched atop this year’s highest-paid GC list is Fox Corp. chief legal and policy officer Viet Dinh, who gave up his salary for about five months in 2020 as part of pandemic-related corporate austerity measures. 

Still, Dinh received a whopping $4,237,500 in nonequity incentive compensation, which buoyed his total cash comp to $6,764,423 and lifted him from the No. 3 spot on last year’s list, securing his place as the newest cash king in the in-house realm.

The 2021 General Counsel Compensation Report is based on Corporate Counsel affiliate ALM Intelligence’s analysis of Fortune 1000 companies’ 2020 Securities and Exchange Commission filings and a compilation of their top lawyers’ compensation data.

Because not every general counsel is named on their company’s proxy filing, not every lawyer in the Fortune 1000 is included on our list. Our ranking is based on cash compensation, which includes salary, bonus and nonequity incentives, a post-Dodd-Frank Act form of performance-based pay. Click here to view the compensation chart.

Bruce Campbell, chief development, distribution and legal officer at Discovery Inc., secured the No. 2 position in this year’s list with $4,152,113 in nonequity incentive compensation, which elevated his total cash comp to $6,051,037.

“It’s still good to be the general counsel,” said Jason Winmill, managing partner of Boston-based legal department consulting firm Argopoint. “These are well-compensated professionals, even during a once-in-a-100-year global event, such as a pandemic.”

The More They Earn, the Harder They Fall

Last year’s cash king, Alan Braverman, top lawyer at The Walt Disney Co., plummeted to No. 73 on this year’s list. 

The previous No. 2 earner, Eric Grossman, chief legal officer at Morgan Stanley is absent from the latest list, because he wasn’t among the bank’s five highest-paid execs and therefore not named in the firm’s proxy filing.

Grossman and Braverman’s tumble from the top of the cash comp heap illustrates the tumult of the past year.

Disney posted a nearly $7-billion loss in operating income for fiscal year 2020, due to closures of its amusement park and reduced operating capacities, and laid off thousands of employees. As the Burbank, California-based entertainment and media giant hemorrhaged money, its top brass agreed to forgo bonuses and slash their salaries. 

For Braverman, that meant an 80% reduction of his 2019 cash compensation of $8 million, which fell to $1,581,731 last year. 

Zooming out to take in the bigger picture, the average bonus for GCs slipped from $644,226 in 2019 to $504,856 last year, a decrease of 21%. The median bonus, which is more telling as it isn’t skewed by abnormally large payouts for individual in-house leaders, decreased even more—from $345,302 to $250,000, a 27% drop. 

“That’s a big hit,” Winmill said. “To me, that reflects some cautiousness on the part of corporate America and maybe some concerns that we’re not out of the woods yet, which is true.” 

Meanwhile, average and median salaries remained essentially unchanged year over year, hovering in the mid- to low $500,000s, respectively. 

“Bonuses tend to be based, in part, on a company’s performance, which is why I think there was a decrease on the bonus side,” said Deborah Ben-Canaan, senior practice leader for in-house counsel recruiting at Major, Lindsey & Africa in Washington, D.C. “That’s a more discretionary part of the pay package.” 

Entertainment Nips at Financial Sector’s Heels

During a typical year, familiar names, including mainstays Braverman and Grossman, appear on the highest-paid GCs list. But in another sign of turmoil, half of the legal chiefs on this year’s top 10 cash comp earners weren’t on the prior year’s list.  

Four of those new names work in the entertainment industry: David Hyman of Netflix Inc., Paul Robinson of Warner Music Group Corp., Katherine Adams of Apple Inc., and Michael Cohen of digital entertainment firm Playtika Holding Corp. 

Five of the GCs on the top 10 cash comp list are in entertainment, up from three last year. And while finance firms typically throw far more cash at legal executives than any other sector, the entertainment realm came close to claiming the title as the highest paying industry in the latest comp survey. 

Finance firms paid legal bosses a total of $67,380,958 in 2020, edging out the entertainment sector’s total of $60,206,491. Total GC pay dropped year-over-year for both industries. But the decline was lopsided, to say the least. Entertainment’s total comp slid by about $4 million, while aggregate pay in the finance industry took a more than $22.6 million cliff dive. 

An uptick in TV watching and other at-home media consumption during quarantine played a role in the entertainment industry’s ability to outperform other sectors during the pandemic. But another, less obvious potential factor also could be at play. 

“The media industry tends to have very extensive noncompetes in their contracts and they are more likely to try to enforce them than in other industries,” said Ben-Canaan.

“Knowing that someone is binding themselves to an organization, I would think there would be a decent amount of negotiation on the front end for the contracts. That could have some correlation to the higher comp package,” she added. 

The future remains as uncertain as ever, especially with the spread of the delta variant and the possibility of other new COVID strains. But in-house recruiters are seeing a battle for legal talent as more companies lift hiring freezes from the earlier days of the pandemic and, as a result, they predicted that GC pay will increase. 

“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never been busier,” Ben-Canaan said. “Candidates are in high demand. They’re demanding more money. And they can get it because there are so many opportunities out there for them.” 

‘My Phone Is Ringing Like Never Before’

The majority of the highest-paid GCs are still white men. But the number of women on the top 10 cash comp list increased by one in the latest survey with the addition of Apple’s Adams.

She ranked seventh with $4,577,000, joining Karen Seymour of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Laureen Seeger of American Express Co., who traditionally have held it down as the only two women on the list. Seymour ranked sixth with $4.9 million in total cash comp, while Seeger’s $4,117,667 secured her the 10th spot. 

Women accounted for three of the GCs on the top 10 salary list and six of the 10 GCs who took home the biggest bonuses last year. Seymour and Seeger ranked second and third with $3.4-million and $2.33-million bonuses, respectively. Also on the top bonus list: Teri Little of Applied Materials Inc., Hilary Krane at Nike Inc., Carey Roberts at Ventas, and Deirdre Stanley of Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. 

But the gender pay gap remains. For example, the top bonus earner, Robinson at Warner Music Group, took home a nearly $4.4-million bonus, almost $1 million more than Seymour. Looking at salaries, Seymour had the highest base pay of all women GCs with $1.5 million. By comparison, Hyman at Netflix topped the salary list with $5.5 million. 

As for racial and ethnic diversity, Dinh at Fox and Stanley at Estée Lauder appear to be the only GCs of color on the top 10 lists for cash comp and bonuses, respectively. 

“People of color have to get more opportunities to become GCs of Fortune 500 companies,” said Laurie Robinson Haden, president and CEO of Corporate Counsel Women of Color in New York. “But we are seeing some movement.”

For instance, Haden noted that several large companies, including Tractor Supply Co. and Univision Communications Inc., recently appointed women of color to legal chief roles. 

In-house recruiter Kathryn Holt Richardson, founder of HR Legal Search in Austin, Texas, also was somewhat optimistic about future GC comp lists including more diverse in-house leaders. That’s due, at least in part, to companies attempting to “actualize some of the statements they put out about diversity” in response to George Floyd’s murder and other racist incidents, she said. 

“My phone is ringing like never before,” she added. “I’m seeing more intentional, strategic recruiting and I think that will trickle up to women of color and people of color being in the upper echelon of compensation. It’s on its way. But it’s going to take time.” 


© 2024 ALM Global, LLC, All Rights Reserved. Request academic re-use from All other uses, submit a request to [email protected]. For more information visit Asset & Logo Licensing.