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At a time when many Americans are struggling with a business recovery that’s too slow to satisfy many, here’s a group that, as a whole, really can’t complain: chief legal officers reported among the top five highest paid executives of public companies in the Southeast.

Like the rest of the business world, those who hold the general counsel title have had their ups and downs. But at the top level, this group is looking at an 11 percent total compensation increase over last year. They’re still under their peak in 2007, just before the stock market and the economy plunged. But with an average compensation package of $5.47 million for the top 10, these corporate GCs should be able to get by.

By comparison, the top 10 in 2007 averaged $5.6 million in total compensation. The top 10 average dropped to $5.5 million in 2008 and $4.3 million in 2009. They recovered to $4.92 million in 2010. They bounced back to $5.47 million in their companies’ latest proxy statements for 2011. They may not be breaking out the champagne, but they’re hanging on.

Actually, they’re making it look too easy, according to legal recruiters who have to break the news to the average law firm associate or even partner that they’re not quite qualified for these coveted GC positions.

“This is the very tip top of the corporate counsel world,” said Robert Graff, vice president and partner with the legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa in Atlanta. The competition for those positions is fierce.

“We do 40 or so general counsel searches a year, and 90 percent of the time they want somebody who’s already been a general counsel,” said Graff. “In an in-house legal department, there’s only one general counsel. There’s a lot of competition for that top spot. In a law firm, a lot of people can make partner.”

So, while the few in-house legal positions available are still prized, many of those who dream of them are in for bad news. “They may think they’re qualified to be a corporate general counsel, but they’re not,” said Graff.

So what does it take? Most obviously, these people are bringing added value to the table. “They’re not just lawyers, they’re sharp business people,” said Graff.

At this level, it’s not uncommon for the general counsel to serve another role. A review of the titles in this report shows nearly always more than one. Of the top 10 in the Southeast this year, two are also the chief administrative officer and one is also the chief operating officer.

Further down the Georgia list at No. 32, Bradley Zimmer of Remark Media Inc. added the COO title, too.

Often, GCs have other skills as well: an MBA, a strong economics or finance background or a business career between college and law school.

“Most GCs spend at least half their time on executive function as opposed to legal function,” said Graff.

At the moment, opportunities seem to abound for those corporate counsel who have additional expertise in regulatory matters, said Melba Hughes, a newly named partner with Major, Lindsey & Africa and founder of Hughes Consultants.

“The regulations are changing, so companies want to be in compliance,” she said. “They’re looking for people with expertise in these regulated areas.”

Industries that are particularly affected by this trend now are health care and banking, she said.

Recent security breaches of computer systems in banking and the retail industry— and the increasing potential for liability—have given rise to a new practice area at the heart of some new in-house jobs, recruiters say. “We’ve got a couple of job orders to try to find privacy counsel,” said Richard Rice, managing partner for American Legal.

To land one of these plum jobs, Rice advised: “You’ve got to be more. It takes longer. The ones who are getting hired are the standout business lawyers.”

Plenty of GCs earn far less than those who show up in this survey. Some earn less than $200,000, recruiters said. But landing the GC job is usually the biggest step up in pay for corporate lawyers.

Their pay packages vary by industry and by size of their companies. Usually—but not always—the bigger the company, the bigger the compensation package. Stock values have created an erratic variable in recent years. Bonuses, more and more, are tied to corporate performance.

Another thing about bonuses: for the most part, they went out of style during the recession. Only four of the top 10 Southeastern GC packages included a bonus last year. Only two of Georgia’s top 10 did.

And with economic volatility comes greater cost pressure on everyone at the chief leadership level, including the chief legal officers. That puts more pressure on outside counsel as well to offer alternative fees arrangements and perhaps creates opportunities for regional firms and contract lawyers.

“The only really new strong trend is that GCs are under a lot more pressure financially than they used to be,” said Graff. And that doesn’t seem to be changing with recovery. “Cost trends don’t go in reverse.”

More average-income earners can take some comfort in the knowledge that these GCs are the ones who risk jail if they make mistakes, or fail to prevent their colleagues in the C-suite from making them, noted Graff. “Other executives are looking for the GC to keep them out of jail.”

Even with that perspective, the numbers in GC pay stubs are still eye-popping. And it’s not against the law to look.

Or to dream.

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