In the world of legal services, a general counsel (GC) occupies an integral yet complex position, bridging the legal and business operations of an organization. Unlike other attorneys focused on specific practice areas, a general counsel must blend legal expertise with business strategy and executive-level thinking.
Within the broad umbrella exist four distinct types of general counsel defined by their primary responsibilities. Understanding these GC roles provides clarity around the diverse capabilities needed to drive organizational success.
1. Compliance Officer
General counsels most often serve as chief compliance officers responsible for overseeing regulatory, contractual, and ethical integrity. This involves establishing robust compliance programs to align company practices with relevant laws and obligations.
A GC compliance officer interprets regulations across functions like employment, data privacy, environmental policies, and financial reporting to guide internal decision-making. They also assess deals and ventures for compatibility with legal and regulatory demands.
By taking preventative measures, GCs, as compliance officers, circumvent legal issues that might surface around topics like corruption, discrimination, or deceptive advertising. This proactive work reduces operational risks and protects the organization’s reputation.
2. Legal Translator
Given that GCs stand with one foot in the legal field and one in business operations, they become critical conduits translating between each domain. Specifically, GCs must decode complex legal jargon and implications for key business stakeholders.
general counsel as legal translators demystify statutes, litigation risks, contractual details and court rulings into digestible terms for non-legal executives and the board. This clear communication ensures leadership can incorporate legal perspectives into constructive business planning.
Legal translators also convey corporate priorities and growth plans for internal legal teams. This facilitates tailored counsel that bolsters overarching corporate strategy versus rigidly applying the law.
3. The Litigation Expert
GCs often assume a key role in managing dispute resolution and litigation efforts across the company’s legal portfolio. Dubbed the litigation quarterback, general counsels oversee case strategy and court proceedings much like a football quarterback drives their team’s offensive game plan.
Pre-trial activities involving evidence collection, witness preparation, and settlement negotiation all fall under the general counsel’s purview. Once in court, the litigation quarterback closely oversees the external legal team while communicating progress to senior leadership.
This birds-eye vantage enables GCs to pivot legal tactics based on case developments and business priorities. Settlement decisions also sit squarely with this litigation expert.
4. The Client Advocate
At their best, GCs become trusted advisors applying legal expertise to advance organizational interests – what some consider the client advocate role. As objective champions for the company’s welfare, general counsels offer recommendations that align with corporate values and goals.
Key activities for counsels as client advocates include vetting growth opportunities, troubleshooting roadblocks across departments, and weighing in on significant expenditures. For example, a GC might flag contractual terms that undermine profit margins during third-party negotiations.
While avoiding unethical conduct, the client advocate leverages legal skills and business acumen to empower leadership in pursuing the organization’s mission.
The Path From Attorney to General Counsel Roles
The diversity of the general counsel function underscores why career progression into these GC shoes remains highly selective. Beyond sharp legal minds and sound judgment, ascendance into general counsel roles requires proven business aptitude along with influence and communication abilities.
Once ready to tackle general counsel responsibilities, lawyers can pursue roles within legal departments to gain experience supporting top firm leaders. Others transition through roles as external counsel, interfacing closely with general counsels of client organizations.
Types Of General Counsel: Closing Thoughts
Regardless of specific career pathways, landing an elite general counsel post that effectively showcases legal excellence against corporate priorities stands as the prime achievement for any attorney. The four types of general counsel explored here represent the full breadth and possibility of this unique legal business role.