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Corporate Counsel Career Guide

What is a corporate counsel?

A corporate counsel is an attorney who works within a business entity, providing legal advice and guidance on a wide range of business-related issues. They aim to provide in-house legal advice, reducing the need for outside counsel and associated costs. Their role is vital in dealing with complex legal regulations and procedures. They ensure their employer conducts business in a manner compliant with the applicable laws and safeguards its interests in all legal matters.

These legal experts are integral to strategic planning and decision-making processes, offering insights into the potential legal ramifications of various actions. Identifying potential problems before they become serious can help an organization navigate possible obstacles and pursue its objectives without legal entanglements that could pose a significant setback or consume vast resources. Therefore, their contribution and value are immeasurable in maintaining a business’s smooth operation.

Duties and responsibilities

The primary responsibilities of a corporate counsel revolve around providing legal assistance to an organization and maintaining awareness of changes in laws, regulations, and industry practices that may impact operations. They are responsible for drafting, reviewing, and negotiating contracts and other legal documents such as partnerships or merger agreements. They handle litigation matters, determining the legal approach and strategy while working with outside counsel. Their counsel can help resolve disputes between companies or with clients, partners, or other stakeholders.

Another major responsibility includes offering advice on corporate governance and ethical conduct issues. They assist in the creation of company policies that comply with laws and regulations while achieving the organization’s strategic aim. In some cases, they may also address human resource issues that involve legal or ethical implications. Lastly, depending on the organization’s nature and needs, they may provide legal opinions on intellectual property, environmental law, or other specialist areas.

Work environment

Corporate counsels usually work within an office environment, often in the headquarters of the business entity they serve – typically a corporate setting with meetings and briefings, both face-to-face and virtual, as part of their daily routine. There may also be occasions when they must travel, especially when dealing with external stakeholders or attending court proceedings.

The environment can often be fast-paced and stressful, given the complex and sensitive nature of the job. They must manage a variety of stakeholders, including top executives, departments, government agencies, and other lawyers. Thus, the position demands patience, resilience, meticulous attention to detail, efficient multitasking, and excellent communication skills.

Typical work hours

Most corporate counsels work full-time during standard business hours, but their role often requires additional time. Working late into the evening or on weekends to prepare for or resolve a critical legal issue is common. The workload may increase with tight deadlines and high demands, especially when the company is undertaking significant strategic initiatives, responding to a legal crisis, or dealing with complex litigation.

How to become a corporate counsel

Becoming a corporate counsel involves academic studies, examinations, certifications, and experience. Here, we’ve outlined the significant steps required.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

The first step is earning a bachelor’s degree. Though law schools do not insist on any particular major, degrees in English, political science, history, economics, or business could offer a good platform for future legal studies. Taking courses that enhance research, analytical thinking, and communication skills is also beneficial.

Step 2: Attend law school

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to attend law school, which typically lasts three years. It’s important to pick a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Courses in law school are designed to provide a broad knowledge of U.S. law, including subjects like constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing.

Step 3: Pass the bar examination

Upon graduation from law school, aspiring attorneys must pass the state’s bar examination where they intend to practice. The bar exam is a rigorous, two-day test that assesses a candidate’s understanding and application of law concepts.

Step 4: Gain legal experience

After passing the bar, acquiring practical legal experience can provide a competitive edge when applying for jobs. Working in law firms, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations can offer valuable experience handling real-life legal issues.

Step 5: Specialize in corporate law

Given the intensive nature of corporate legal matters, it’s beneficial to specialize in corporate law. Specialization can be achieved during law school, later through post-JD programs, or practical experience in law firms focusing on business or corporate law.

Step 6: Obtain a job

After gaining sufficient experience and specialization in corporate law, you can apply for corporate counsel positions. These positions can be found in corporations of different scales – from multinational companies to startup firms.

How much do corporate counsel make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a corporate counsel makes, from company size to experience to education, just to name a few. 

Highest paying industries

  • Cable and Other Subscription Programming – $249,310
  • Securities and Commodity Exchanges – $242,370
  • Software Publishers – $229,180
  • Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing – $227,140
  • Monetary Authorities – $220,780

Highest paying states

  • California – $208,120
  • New York – $202,960
  • Massachusetts – $199,870
  • Connecticut – $196,780
  • Washington – $190,470

Browse corporate counsel salary data by market

Types of corporate counsel

This career guide section covers a diverse range of specialties, each uniquely tailored to suit the varying needs of corporations. From general corporate counsel to specializing in areas like transactions, compliance, or intellectual property, there are numerous opportunities for legal practitioners to offer their expertise to businesses.

General counsel

A general corporate counsel handles a broad spectrum of a company’s legal requirements. These professionals must have a deep understanding of business law and are expected to provide strong legal advice that secures the company’s best interests at a strategic level.

Corporate transactions

These professionals specialize in managing a business’s contractual agreements. They are responsible for ensuring the legality of transactions, drafting contracts, negotiating deals, and overseeing mergers and acquisitions. An eye for detail is a must-have trait in this specialty.

Corporate compliance

Those who venture into compliance focus on helping businesses adhere to the complex rules and regulations governing their operations. With a deep understanding of the law, these lawyers develop effective compliance strategies to prevent and manage potential legal issues the corporation may face.

Intellectual property

Intellectual property (IP) lawyers gear their expertise toward safeguarding a company’s intellectual assets. Their tasks range from overseeing patents, trademarks, and copyrights to dealing with IP infringements. Their role is critical to protect a company’s creativity, market share, and ongoing innovation.

Top skills for corporate counsels

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a corporate counsel. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Sound legal knowledge

In corporate law, having a secure grasp of legal concepts is non-negotiable. As a guardian of the corporation’s legal interests, these professionals must have exhaustive knowledge of legal precedents, statutes, and regulations. They must understand the implications of these laws on their business and advise accordingly to ensure the corporation’s smooth and lawful operation. This grasp of the law is also pivotal when drafting legal agreements or defending the organization in litigation cases.

Negotiation skills

Mastery in negotiation is essential to successfully navigating corporate law. One major area of responsibility involves navigating the terms, conditions, and clauses of contracts or agreements to the corporation’s advantage. Hence, negotiating strategically while maintaining professional decorum is a requisite skill in this field.

Problem-solving abilities

Given the intricate and complex nature of legal considerations in business, offering viable solutions is crucial. A proficient corporate counsel must be able to identify potential legal problems promptly, consider possible outcomes, and devise strategies to counter them. The capacity to balance practical business needs with legal compliance is a noteworthy attribute.

Ethical integrity

Integrity is the cornerstone of any legal career, and it’s prominently showcased in this role. Maintaining an unwavering ethical stance is paramount amid the varied interests and pressures within an organization. Conducting oneself responsibly with the highest standards and using legal knowledge fosters trust, reliability, and corporate sustainability.


Developing and sustaining professional relationships is an integral part of their role. Networking with stakeholders, managing external legal counsel, fostering employee cooperation, and communicating effectively with all stakeholders enables them to work efficiently and ensure the organization’s legal protection from various perspectives.

Corporate counsel career path

The nature of the corporate counsel role inherently provides room for career advancement and growth. Once they gain substantial experience and prove their skills, multiple paths for career advancement unfold.

One common step is to ascend to senior corporate counsel. In this role, individuals assume increased responsibilities and supervise junior attorneys. They take on higher-stakes projects and have more say in forming strategic plans for the company’s legal concerns. They act as trusted advisors to senior management and engage in broader cross-functional collaboration.

Another potential path is to transition to a specialized legal role based on their expertise. For instance, those proficient in mergers and acquisitions could become a M&A counsel, focusing exclusively on business transactions. This option allows for in-depth mastery of a particular legal domain.

Further down the line, one could aim to become a company’s general counsel or chief legal officer. This top-level role involves overseeing the company’s entire legal department and dictating its overall legal strategy. The general counsel also frequently serves on the company’s executive team and directly advises the CEO and board of directors on legal matters.

Finally, some may opt to transition out of in-house roles and into private practice. They may become a partner at a law firm specializing in corporate law. This option often presents opportunities for higher earning potential and the chance to work with various clients.

The profession is evolving in terms of its demands and organizational roles. The digital landscape is constantly changing, and with it, the role of corporate counsel is becoming progressively more complex. Gone are the days when their primary function was limited to dealing with legal issues; today, they are expected to be strategic business partners capable of providing advice on a range of topics, not just legal matters.

The shift from traditional office settings to remote setups has brought about unique challenges for maintaining efficient communication and ensuring data protection and privacy, thereby necessitating the presence of a competent legal team in-house.

Another key trend is the growing importance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. This underlines a shift in how businesses operate, considering not just profitability but also their impact on society and the environment. As such, there’s a crucial legal role in advising on these matters, implementing guidelines, and ensuring adherence to relevant laws and regulations.

Employment projections for corporate counsels

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of lawyers is projected to grow 10 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. This projection is predicated on increased demand for legal services in various sectors, such as healthcare, intellectual property, environmental law, and privacy rights, where corporate counsels often provide input.

Corporate counsel career tips

Embrace continuous learning

The evolving nature of legal frameworks, regulations, and business practices necessitates a commitment to continuous learning. Keep up-to-date with legislative changes, relevant rulings, and industry-specific legal nuances to be effective in your role. Understanding the business landscape your company operates within is also highly beneficial.

  • Attend seminars and webinars on the latest developments in corporate law
  • Follow respected law journals and law-oriented publications and podcasts
  • Take advantage of professional legal certification programs

Develop strong business thinking

You serve as your organization’s legal advisor and business partner. Understanding business strategy, financial implications, and market dynamics can guide you in providing sound legal advice that aligns with overall business goals. Your ability to think from a business perspective will make you a value-adding addition to strategic discussions.

Engage proactively with the business

Don’t wait for legal challenges before getting involved. By maintaining an active presence in your organization’s daily operations and early participation in project planning, you can be better positioned to anticipate and navigate potential legal risks.

Communicate effectively with non-lawyers

A significant portion of your work involves liaising with individuals who are not lawyers. It is vital to simplify complex legal concepts and communicate them in a way that all stakeholders within your organization can easily understand. This can enhance collaboration, prevent misunderstanding, and effectively guide decision-making processes.

Build a professional network

  • American Bar Association (ABA)
  • Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC)
  • International Bar Association (IBA)
  • American Corporate Counsel Association (ACA)

Pursue specialty certifications

Obtaining specialty certifications can help differentiate you and demonstrate expertise in a specific corporate law sector, such as contract management or intellectual property. Certifications can also display your commitment to professional excellence and continuous learning.

Where the corporate counsel jobs are

Top employers

  • Amazon
  • Google
  • Microsoft
  • Facebook
  • Apple

Top states

  • California
  • Washington
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Massachusetts

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • FlexJobs


What are the key responsibilities of a corporate counsel?

A corporate counsel oversees every aspect of a company’s legal matters. This includes drafting contracts, handling judicial matters, guiding management on legal decisions, ensuring the company adheres to laws and regulations, and monitoring potential legal risks.

What qualifications are required to become a corporate counsel?

Typically, a JD degree from an accredited law school, followed by passing the bar examination in the state where they plan to practice. They should also have experience in legal practice, particularly in corporate law. Familiarity with the industry in which the corporation operates is also advantageous.

What skills are critical for a corporate counsel?

An effective corporate counsel should possess excellent analytical and problem-solving skills, should be adept at negotiation, must have strong communication abilities, and need to understand business operations. Given the nature of their role, they also need to demonstrate a high degree of professionalism, integrity, and ethics.

What are the different areas of focus for a corporate counsel?

Some may focus on contracts, intellectual property, labor laws, regulatory compliance, and mergers and acquisitions. Others may navigate issues related to real estate, taxes, or employment discrimination. Being flexible and adaptable in various areas of corporate law is a valuable attribute.

What are the key distinctions between a corporate counsel and a private practice attorney?

A corporate counsel works internally as a dedicated legal advisor for a specific corporation, becoming a specialist in the corporation’s industry and business. A private practice attorney works with clients across various industries, providing legal services on a case-by-case basis. The focus of a corporate counsel is more on legal risk management, while a private practice attorney may have a litigation-centric role.

What are some of the ethical considerations for a corporate counsel?

They have a fiduciary responsibility to the company and should always strive to give objective, ethical advice to the company. They need to maintain confidentiality and avoid conflicts of interest. They should uphold the law and guide the company to conduct business ethically and legally. If the company chooses to engage in unlawful activities, they must advocate against such actions and, if necessary, take appropriate steps, including resignation.

What is a typical day in the life of a corporate counsel?

A typical day might involve meeting with company leaders to discuss legal issues, reviewing contracts or other legal documents, researching current and potential laws that could affect the company, collaborating with external legal counsel on ongoing lawsuits or regulatory matters, and advising on risk management strategies. They are also involved in strategic planning discussions, so they may spend a portion of their day reviewing and preparing for these conversations.

What are the challenges encountered by a corporate counsel?

They may face numerous challenges, such as staying up-to-date with the constant changes in laws and regulations, managing legal risks in the presence of business pressures, dealing with ethical issues, and handling complex legal scenarios in an increasingly globalized business environment. Balancing the company’s interest while ensuring compliance with legal obligations can also be a challenging aspect of the role.

What growth opportunities exist for a corporate counsel?

With experience, a corporate counsel can rise to positions such as senior or chief legal officer, executive vice president of legal affairs, or even CEO. Additionally, they can choose to specialize in certain areas of corporate law, like mergers and acquisitions or securities. Opportunities also exist in teaching corporate law or becoming a legal consultant specializing in corporate affairs.

How does the role of a corporate counsel differ in small and large corporations?

In a smaller organization, they may have to handle a wider range of legal issues due to resource constraints while being closely involved in strategic business decisions. In larger corporations, the role may be more specialized and involve collaboration with a large team of in-house lawyers, each focusing on different aspects of corporate law.

How can a corporate counsel stay updated on relevant laws and regulations?

Continuing education is crucial in the legal field. Attending seminars, webinars, and conferences, subscribing to industry publications, reading legal blogs, keeping tabs on legislative changes, and joining professional legal associations can help keep them updated. Participating in legal forums or discussion groups can provide insightful perspectives on legal trends and developments.