General Counsel. a partner. Senior legal advisor. a partner. District Attorney General. and so on. Among the professions, the law places special emphasis on surname. There are dozens of titles for lawyers, so skip the lawyer joke examples.
A smart in-company consultant knows that whatever title of attorney he gets, what really matters in corporate America is the degree-level title. This is especially true of publicly traded companies.
Each grade level has its own salary range, bonus parameters, and stock eligibility. Justice is often limited to higher degree levels. The path to heights and meaningful advancement within a company is to move up the ranks. This is easier said than done for several reasons, and it’s often the reason professionals move to another company.
I will deal with the company’s row level tree from bottom to top. The principal is the lowest level of the in-house counsel. In fact, it is not unusual for lawyers and non-lawyers alike to serve as “managers” within the law department. Principal is the most common degree level for an in-house attorney and covers a wide range of experience. Many senior advisors spend their entire careers at the principal level.
The next grade level is the vice president. Although the title itself is overused in some industries (such as banking), the VP level of rank makes sense in most companies. Vice presidents often manage others. Ironically, managers don’t manage much of anything. Most importantly, of course, the VP level unlocks a more dynamic and profitable compensation package. In many law departments, the degree level of vice president is often associated with the department’s general counsel, deputy general counsel, or associate general counsel in legal titles.
The next two levels up are rare air. The senior vice president is usually assigned to one person within the law department, who is the general counsel. Executive vice president is the highest possible level of general counsel.
To complicate matters a little, the title of Chief Legal Officer is often assigned to General Counsel at the executive level to be consistent with the titles of other C-suite officials. Not all companies use a CLO address. In some cases, a Fortune 100 firm with a large legal division will have a CLO CEO as well as a General Counsel who manages the division’s day-to-day operations. But many times the CLO is just a general counsel with the C-suite title and there is no meaningful difference in actual responsibility.
So, what does all of this mean for you? First, don’t focus too much on a title in the legal world such as Senior Counsel or Assistant General Counsel. Instead, understand the row level heading. There are senior advisor positions at the vice president level. There are many Assistant General Counsel positions at the director level. Don’t let your ego get in the way by focusing on the less important legal title.
Before accepting any position, understand how all ranges of grade levels work for your potential new employer. Ask about the likelihood and timing of a grade level upgrade and how the company evaluates promotions beyond the individual’s current grade.
Mike Evers He hires attorneys for companies across the United States. Please visit www.everslegal.com for more information.