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How to Become a General Counsel

August 28, 2023
9 min read


Reviewed by:

David Merson

Former Head of Pre-Law Office, Northeastern University, & Admissions Officer, Brown University

Reviewed: 08/28/23

Are you interested in becoming a general counsel? Keep reading to learn all about how to become a general counsel.

A lawyer standing in her office

General counsels play a critical role in the success of the company or organization they serve. They’re responsible for managing risks, providing strategic advice, and ensuring the company complies with all applicable laws and regulations. This can significantly impact the company's bottom line, as well as its reputation and standing within its industry.

General counsels often work on a wide variety of legal issues and projects, which can make for a dynamic and intellectually stimulating career. This diversity of work can make the job both challenging and rewarding, as general counsels must be able to quickly adapt to new challenges and provide creative solutions to complex legal issues.

Overall, a career as a general counsel can be fulfilling for those with the necessary skills and qualifications. If you’re serious about becoming a general counsel, you have a long road ahead. Read on to learn how to become a general counsel, from the key steps involved to how many years it takes to become a general counsel.

What Does a General Counsel Do?

A general counsel is a top-level legal executive responsible for overseeing all legal affairs of a company or organization. Their primary role is to provide legal guidance and support to the company's management and board of directors to ensure the company complies with applicable laws and regulations. 

The role of the general counsel is multifaceted. The specifics of their role depend on the company they work for and the industry. To start, they ensure that the company complies with all relevant laws and regulations, including labor, environmental, and corporate governance laws. 

The general counsel also reviews and drafts contracts, agreements, and other legal documents. They negotiate contracts with third parties and protect the company's interests.

An important part of the role of the general counsel is identifying potential legal risks and developing strategies to minimize or mitigate them. They advise on the company's risk management policies and procedures, including insurance policies and dispute resolution.

Companies' litigation matters, including lawsuits, regulatory investigations, and arbitration proceedings, are all governed by the general counsel. They work closely with outside counsel to represent the company's interests in legal disputes. 

The general counsel protects the company's intellectual property, including trademarks, patents, and copyrights. They advise on the company's intellectual property strategy and ensure its rights are properly enforced.

Overall, the role of the general counsel is critical in ensuring that companies operate in a legally compliant and ethical manner. They help to minimize legal risk and protect the company's interests.

Steps to Becoming a General Counsel

A student looking at a computer screen

Keep reading if you’re keen to learn how to become a general counsel. It typically requires a combination of education, experience, and skills. If you’re wondering ‘how many years to become a general counsel,’ you’ve come to the right place. 

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

The first step in becoming a general counsel is to obtain a bachelor's degree in a relevant field such as law, business, or economics. A degree in law is especially helpful, as it provides exposure to legal terms and knowledge. 

Regardless of your program, obtaining a bachelor's degree can provide general counsels with the foundational knowledge and skills necessary for success in law school and a career as a general counsel. 

It’s also a prerequisite for law school, which is typically required to become a general counsel. A bachelor's degree is increasingly becoming the minimum education requirement for many professional positions in the legal field and beyond. Having a bachelor's degree can give general counsels a competitive advantage in the job market.

Step 2: Attend Law School

After obtaining a bachelor's degree, the next step is to attend law school and obtain a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Law school typically takes three years to complete. It provides a specialized legal education necessary for general counsel to understand and apply the law in a business context. 

Law school is often a requirement for practicing law and obtaining a law license. This credentialing is necessary for general counsels to provide legal advice and representation to their company.

Attending law school also provides an opportunity for general counsels to build a professional network of colleagues, mentors, and alums who can provide valuable support and guidance throughout their careers.

Step 3: Pass the Bar Exam

After obtaining a JD degree, the next step is to pass the bar exam in the state(s) where you plan to practice law. The bar exam tests knowledge of the law and is required for admission to practice law. 

Consider taking our personalized Uniform Bar Exam Tutoring to get a head start. With individualized, digital Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) coaching, our experienced tutors assist you in raising your score.

It’s also helpful to set a study schedule that fits your learning style and personality. Make sure to allocate time for practice exams and review. Taking practice exams is one of the best ways to prepare for the bar exam. 

Focus on answering exam questions that reflect the format and style of the actual bar exam. Review and analyze the answers to the practice questions, and adjust your study plan accordingly.

Keep track of your progress and study materials, and ensure you have everything you need on exam day. Stay organized and avoid last-minute stress by preparing in advance.

Step 4: Gain Legal Experience

You’ll need several years of legal experience to become a general counsel. This often involves working for a law firm or corporate legal department and gaining experience in various areas of the law. Legal experience lends credibility to a general counsel's legal advice and enhances their reputation within the company and the legal community.

Legal experience provides general counsel with practical skills in legal research, drafting legal documents, negotiating contracts, and advising clients. These skills are critical for success as a general counsel.

Experience in a specific industry provides general counsel with knowledge of the legal issues, regulations, and best practices unique to that industry. This knowledge is essential for providing effective legal advice to a company.

It also gives general counsel a deep understanding of legal risks and how to manage them. This is critical for ensuring that a company complies with laws and regulations, avoids legal disputes, and minimizes legal liability.

Step 5: Develop Leadership Skills

General counsel roles require strong leadership skills. To develop these skills, consider taking on leadership roles in professional organizations or volunteering in your community.

As a key member of the executive team, the general counsel often plays a critical role in decision-making for the company. Strong leadership skills can help general counsel positively influence these decisions.

The general counsel may lead legal teams within the company or work closely with outside counsel. Developing leadership skills allows the general counsel manage these teams effectively, delegate responsibilities, and motivate team members to achieve goals.

Having strong leadership skills can help the general counsel become more involved in strategic planning for the company. This can include identifying legal risks and opportunities, developing policies and procedures to manage those risks, and advising on legal matters that impact the company's overall strategy.

It can also enhance the general counsel's credibility within the company and the legal community. This will allow you to gain trust and respect, which are essential for success as a general counsel.

Step 6: Network, Network, Network

Building a strong professional network is important for career advancement. Attend legal industry events, join professional organizations, and connect with other professionals in your field.

Networking provides opportunities for aspiring general counsels to connect with experienced professionals in the legal industry. These connections can provide guidance, mentorship, and advice on career development.

Step 7: Obtain Additional Training

Continuing education is essential for keeping up with changes in the law and developing new skills. Consider obtaining additional training in areas such as risk management, intellectual property, or compliance.

Legal training and education are constantly evolving, and getting additional training can help general counsel stay up-to-date with changes in laws and regulations. This can help you make informed decisions and advise your organization on legal matters.

Additional training can also help you develop specialized skills and knowledge in a particular area of law or industry. This can make you more valuable to organizations and increase your career opportunities.

By following these steps and developing the necessary skills and experience, you can position yourself for a successful career as a general counsel.

Key Skills to Be a General Counsel

The word "skills" written on a chalkboard

Becoming a successful General Counsel requires a wide range of skills and abilities. It’s a high-pressure role with a ton of responsibility, so it’s vital to be well-equipped with the necessary knowledge and experience for the position. If you’re wondering how to become a general counsel and need some insight into the required skills - read on to learn more. 

Legal Knowledge

A general counsel must have a deep understanding of the law and be able to apply legal principles to a variety of situations. You must also understand the business you work for, including its operations, goals, and challenges.

The General counsel provides legal advice to the organization and its executives. Legal knowledge enables them to interpret laws, regulations, and policies and provide guidance to their clients.

You must be accustomed to managing legal risks and ensuring the organization you work for complies with legal and regulatory requirements. Legal knowledge enables general counsel to identify potential risks and take appropriate action to mitigate them.

Communication Skills

To become a successful general counsel, it’s essential to be an effective communicator, able to convey complex legal concepts clearly and concisely. They are often a member of the executive team and must be a strong leader, able to provide guidance and direction to the legal department and the organization.

Strategic Thinking 

To excel as a general counsel, thinking strategically and proactively identifying legal risks and opportunities is key. To do this effectively, you must be able to analyze complex legal issues and make sound decisions based on in-depth analysis. If you’re a problem solver and are interested in identifying and resolving legal problems, this role might be a great fit for you. 


It’s also important to be a team player. Collaboration is an important part of the role, as the general counsel must be able to work well with other members of the organization, including executives, managers, and employees. 

General counsel often works closely with colleagues, such as other attorneys, paralegals, and staff. Strong teamwork skills can facilitate effective collaboration, communication, and coordination among team members.

Building positive relationships with other departments, such as finance, human resources, and operations, is essential for general counsel to succeed. Teamwork skills can help general counsel establish trust, credibility, and respect with colleagues across the organization.

Commitment to Ethics

A general counsel must have strong ethical standards and be committed to acting with integrity. They are the custodians of the company's reputation and credibility, and their decisions and actions can significantly impact the company's image and standing in the community. 

The general counsel is responsible for ensuring that the company operates within the bounds of the law and avoids legal and regulatory violations. Overall, a successful general counsel must be a skilled legal expert with strong business acumen, communication skills, leadership abilities, and a commitment to ethics and integrity.

General Counsel Salary

The salary for a general counsel in the US can vary widely depending on location, industry, company size, and level of experience. According to data from Payscale, the average salary for a general counsel in the United States as of April 2023 is around $175,702 per year. 

However, salaries can range from $109,000 to over $300,000 per year, depending on the factors mentioned above. Additionally, bonuses and other forms of compensation can significantly increase a general counsel's overall compensation package. 

FAQs: How to Become a General Counsel

Here are frequently asked questions about becoming a general counsel.

1. How Many Years Does It Take to Become a General Counsel?

Overall, the path to becoming a general Counsel can take anywhere from 7-10 years or more, depending on the individual's educational background, career experience, and career goals.

2. Is It Hard to Become General Counsel?

Becoming a general counsel is a challenging and competitive career path that requires a combination of education, experience, and skills. It typically takes several years to qualify for a general counsel position, and competition for these roles can be intense.

3. What Are the Qualifications of a General Counsel?

The qualifications of a general counsel can vary depending on the industry, company, and specific role. General counsels are attorneys who have obtained a law degree and passed the bar exam to practice law in their jurisdiction.

4. Is a General Counsel the Same as a Lawyer?

A general counsel is a type of lawyer, but there are some key differences between the two roles. A lawyer is an individual who has completed law school and is licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. Lawyers may work in a variety of legal roles, including as advocates, advisors, and litigators.

A general counsel, on the other hand, is a lawyer who is employed by a company or organization to oversee its legal affairs. General counsels often have specialized knowledge of the industry in which their company operates, as well as a deep understanding of the company's goals and objectives.

While all general counsels are lawyers, not all lawyers are general counsels. Lawyers may work in a variety of legal roles, including in private practice, government, or nonprofit organizations. General counsels, however, work specifically within a company or organization and are responsible for providing legal guidance and advice to the organization as a whole.

5. Is General Counsel a High Position?

Yes, general counsel is considered a high-level position within a company or organization. As the head of the company's legal department, the general counsel is responsible for overseeing all legal matters for the organization and providing strategic legal advice to the executive team.

Final Thoughts

If you’re interested in a career with challenging work, a high level of autonomy, a competitive salary, and career growth opportunities - the role of general counsel might be the right fit. 

The general counsel has the opportunity to make an impact and influence the company they serve. It’s a career that carries significant responsibilities and plays a critical role in a company's success. With the right skill set, education, and experience, it’s entirely possible to build a highly rewarding career as a general counsel.

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