General Counsel Jobs: Career Options and Requirements
A general counsel is the head lawyer of an organization. They typically head a team of attorneys and may work for organizations ranging from universities and school districts to corporations, banks or the government. General counsels typically begin their career as attorneys and therefore must complete law school and pass the bar exam.
University or School District General Counsel
The role of a general counsel within a university is to minimize the school's exposure to litigation by practicing preventive law. He or she also provides the day-to-day legal services needed to run a university. The general counsel is usually the head of a team of attorneys who work in the office of the general counsel.
Some school districts also employ a general counsel. A school district's general counsel advises the superintendent and the school board on district policies, as well as provides legal training to school board members, school principals and support staff.
General Counsel of a Bar Association
Bar associations, including the American Bar Association, often employ a general counsel. The general counsel of a state bar association, for example, hears complaints about the misconduct or incapacity of the state's attorneys. In addition to taking formal complaint statements, the general counsel and the members of his or her office serve as a disciplinary board for attorneys.
Corporate General Counsel
A corporate general counsel is the head lawyer for an individual corporation. He or she may be a full-time employee of the business or may be contracted from a private firm. Large companies may have a team of in-house lawyers headed by a general counsel. The general counsel handles all of the corporation's legal transactions, from real estate to mergers and acquisitions. Litigation, however, is often contracted to outside legal firms.
Options in the Banking Industry
Banks also employ attorneys. The general counsel at a bank may deal with the legal issues involved in investment management, setting up trusts, administering estates, dealing with estate taxes and portfolio management. Some bank general counsels also deal with tax planning and advising; in this case, he or she must also be a certified public accountant (CPA).
Prospective general counsels begin their education by earning a bachelor's degree from a 4-year university. Some students complete a pre-law curriculum, though students from any major may be accepted into law school. After completing an undergraduate degree program, a prospective law student must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). An LSAT score is required for admission by American Bar Association accredited law schools.
A typical law school program takes three years. The first year and a half are spent studying general law courses and the second year and a half are spent studying a specialization, such as environmental law, international law, probate law or finance. Many law schools also offer clinical programs in which students gain hands-on experience working with clients. Law students may also gain experience through mock-trial programs, participating in legal research or writing for scholarly journals. Students graduate with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
After graduating law school, attorneys must be admitted to a state bar, a form of licensure, in order to practice law. There is no national examination; however, 48 states and several U.S. territories use the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) as a measure of professional competence required for admission to the bar. Several states also require the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE).
A common career path for corporate general counsels is to begin working in transactional law and move up to general counsel after 3-5 years of experience. Some corporations prefer general counsels with experience that emphasizes business, while others prefer those with an emphasis on law.
Salary Information and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a job growth of 10% for lawyers between 2012 and 2022, which is about average for all U.S. occupations. In 2013, the BLS reported that most lawyers earned from $55,170 to more than $187,199 per year, with the highest average salaries coming from the District of Columbia, California, Delaware and New York. In each of these locations at that time, lawyers made an average of more than $153,000 per year.
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