By Jamy Sullivan, JD, Executive Director, Legal Practice Group, Robert Half The role of corporate counsel — also known as in-house counsel or in-house lawyer — has a long history, but it’s a modern role that has rapidly evolved in recent years. Today, it ranks as one of the most in-demand, high-paying jobs in the legal field. No longer occupied with crossing legal t’s and dotting regulatory i’s anymore, today’s corporate counsel is a valued strategic advisor. They navigate complex regulations, deal with ever-changing business environments and frequently sit at the highest decision-making tables. Curious about what a corporate counsel is — and does — and what makes an exceptional one? I’ll explore the ins and outs of this multifaceted legal role, plus the job outlook for this in-demand position.
Like many professionals, the day probably starts by checking email or messages — an urgent request from the finance department about a new tax law, or from HR needing eyes on a new employee contract. Reporting directly to the general counsel or chief legal officer, the corporate counsel is often the first point of contact for such queries. Next, they may be engaged with drafting a risk assessment memo on an upcoming product launch, outlining potential legal pitfalls and recommendations to avoid them. Studying regulatory updates is another a daily task. The day may proceed with meetings — a sit-down with the marketing team about the legal aspects of a new ad campaign, or a call with external partners negotiating the terms of a contract. This is where the corporate counsel’s legal expertise shines as they protect the company’s interests without stifling creativity or business growth. Later might bring a legal research session, getting deep into the nitty-gritty of new laws or regulations for an upcoming company initiative, followed by a meeting with executives and general counsel to discuss long-term strategies, always considering the legal ramifications. Leadership trusts the corporate counsel to see the forest and the trees, balancing immediate concerns with future risks. Of course, the counsel’s duties and responsibilities will vary depending on industry, size of the organization, regulatory environment, and whether the organization is public, private or government, but these tasks are typical.
More universally, no two days are likely to be the same in the life of a corporate counsel. That’s why adaptability is so important. Being ready for the unexpected is part of the job. Other proficiencies useful to the corporate counsel role include: Advanced communication skills. Attorneys can get away with speaking legalese to one another, but the corporate counsel must be ready to explain complex legal issues so everyone from the CEO to a new intern can understand. At the same time, they should be able to speak fluently the language of their own business sector. Business acumen. Beyond language, corporate counsel must have a deep and thorough understanding of their industry. For example, in construction, an in-house lawyer might need to not only understand contract law but also be savvy about construction timelines, zoning laws, building codes and the basics of material costs to help guide the company through legal matters. Digital ability. The modern corporate counsel makes work more efficient through technology. With the rapid digitization of the legal profession, they utilize specialized software and even AI for research, contract management and decision-making. Staying on top of legal tech means attending CLE programs and conferences, and seeking fresh content from industry resources, like leading publications and informative podcasts. Calmness under pressure. Imagine you’re in the middle of negotiating a significant acquisition and just as the deal is about to close, and you get wind of a new government regulation that could impact the valuation of the company being acquired. Emotions are high, and leadership is anxious. Your ability to stay cool, quickly assess the implications and advise on the best way forward can not only save the deal but also cement your reputation as a reliable legal expert. Negotiation. From working out contract details to managing mergers, the corporate counsel knows negotiation. They understand the final objectives, the strengths and weaknesses of all positions, can build a rapport with the opposing side and act ethically at all times.
You may be ready to assume the corporate counsel role if you have a J.D., the skills outlined above, and experience working in law firms or corporate legal departments, exposed to the challenges corporate counsels face each on a daily basis. And the job outlook is very good. Increasingly, companies are bringing legal work in-house to control costs, creating more opportunities for corporate counsel positions. Demand for specialized skills is also driving hiring, according to Robert Half’s Demand for Skilled Talent report. You can find permanent and contract in-house positions by working with a talent solutions firm that specializes in legal roles. The best firms have extensive networks to help them match you with opportunities targeted to your career priorities and work location preferences. They can help to simplify your search by doing the legwork for you. Networking also plays a crucial role in landing a job as a corporate counsel. Attend industry events, join professional organizations and seek out mentors who can provide guidance and support. If you’re looking for a dynamic legal career with room to grow, corporate counsel could be the perfect match for your talents and ambitions. It requires a strong combination of technical and soft skills, but if you have or can develop them, the future for this profession looks exceedingly bright. Ready to take your legal career to the next level? Get job matches now