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Aspiring general counsel can take a tip from a new study that shows 70 percent of U.S. general counsel rose from an in-house counsel background rather than arrived from a law firm.

Also, the typical GC, according to the study’s findings, is a middle-aged male, living in California or New York, working in the financial services industry, and earning about $408,000 a year with salary and bonuses. The just-released study, 2019 General Counsel Landscape, was conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel and LawGeex, a legal technology firm specializing in automated contract review.

The study used data from various sources in the past year, including LinkedIn profiles, job listings and compensation surveys conducted by ACC. ACC said there are 113,000 GCs in the U.S., and the study covered some 34,000.

Veta Richardson, president and CEO of the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, D.C., in an interview with Corporate Counsel Tuesday, said the high percentage of general counsel who come from in-house legal positions “shows in-house counsel are afforded unmatched levels of respect in corporations,” Richardson said. “They understand the business and how to navigate it. They are deeply rooted in the challenges an enterprise faces.”

She said in-house lawyers also have different communication skills than law firm attorneys. “In a law firm, lawyers communicate mostly lawyer-to-lawyer. But in-house counsel communicate lawyer-to-business people much more frequently. The in-house counsel experience is increasingly a requirement [for general counsel] and not just a preference.”

Richardson said, “we are clearly in the age of the general counsel. Over the last decade or so we have witnessed unparalleled growth in the power and prestige of the general counsel role.”

As evidence, she cited the study as showing GCs today are involved in a range of areas beyond “talking about what the law says and making sure companies don’t violate it.”

The GC role now includes complex legal issues, enterprise risk management, regulatory enforcement, environmental sustainability, geopolitical pressures and business strategy, she said.

But Richardson said both she and LawGeex were “surprisingly disappointed” by the still prevalent gender disparities revealed in the study: Women make up only 31 percent of the GC population, and 30 percent within the Fortune 500. And male GCs were paid an average of 39 percent more than females. But while 48 percent of women in-house counsel recognize the gender pay gap, only 8 percent of men do, the study said.

“Look at the law schools filled with women and at the in-house profession, where nearly 50 percent of all in-house counsel are women,” Richardson said. “They have the background [to be general counsel]. We are disappointed not seeing it.”    

She said corporations are still ahead of law firms in promoting women into leadership positions, however. And the brightest spot, she noted, is that the study found 43 percent of general counsel hired in the past year were female.

Among other findings in the study:

  • The pay for a Fortune 500 General Counsel can be as much as $6.7 million annually. Management skills are the top skill listed in GC LinkedIn profiles, cited by 53 percent of all GCs as a core skill on their LinkedIn profiles, followed by litigation (47 percent), corporate law (41 percent) and legal writing (35 percent).
  • Finance attracts more GCs than any other industry, with 17 percent of all GCs working in the sector, followed by government, technology and manufacturing, each with 10 percent.
  • Skills related to “business” comprise the top words used by companies when recruiting a GC, based on an analysis of 100 job ads for general counsel. Business is mentioned 306 times across 100 job ads, beating second-placed compliance (257 mentions), traditional legal expertise such as knowledge of “agreements” (113 mentions), “risk” (107), “contract” (67) and drafting (57).
  • About 27 percent of GCs also hold the position of executive vice president, and 27 percent  are senior vice presidents.