General Counsel, In-House Counsel, Job Searches

Moonlighting: What’s Really So Great About Being The General Counsel?

In last week’s Moonlighting, we checked out what several general counsels and chief legal officers considered to be the worst aspects of their job. And all of us in junior positions and middle management cried a tear for them.

This week, we’re going to look at what those GCs and CLOs said are the absolute bestest things ever about being the head of a legal department. Dare to take a guess? Is it the fact that they’re compensated with tons of cash, stock options, and other sweet benefits as a member of the exclusive C Suite? Or that law firm partners are as attentive to them as valets are to earls and dukes on Downton Abbey? Or that the Red Sea parts whenever they raise a staff over it?

Apparently there are greater benefits to being a GC than any of those above. And this includes one that was listed in last week’s column as a reason you wouldn’t want to be the GC….

According to the group of head legal officers I bothered surveyed, one of the best aspects of heading a legal department is that the buck stops with you. Hmm wait… that sounds familiar… where have I seen that before? Oh right: here.

You’re the one who gets to ultimately call all of the shots and make the final decisions. (Unless, of course, it’s a business issue. Or your CEO is best buddies with the relationship partner at the law firm you’d like to fire. Or HR doesn’t agree with you that it’s about time that your associate counsel who’s been working at the company for 48 years should get a promotion. But other than that, you’re golden.)

As the head of the team, you get to have control over what you and everyone else in your group focuses on and you can have a large influence on what the company overall focuses on. If you’re a control freak, nothing beats having a hand in shaping your own fate.

As the GC or CLO, you’re also able to focus more on high-level work and major business issues (the “important” stuff) and less on specific document provisions, processes, or matters (the “line worker” stuff). You spend less time grinding out dozens of contracts or court/regulatory filings day in and day out. Of course, exactly how much of the line work you do will depend on how large your company is. If you’re the sole lawyer in a small startup, you’ll spend a lot more time down and friendly with the weeds than if you’re the GC of a Fortune 100 company.

Another top benefit is the fun and warm fuzzies you get from directing and mentoring good attorneys to develop into even better attorneys. You get to noodle with them about issues, propose some suggestions, and see how those develop into key ideas and strategies. You also get to put strong attorneys and staff together and watch them magically mature into dynamic, talented legal teams. For GCs who are very people-oriented, this can be extremely rewarding.

Looking back at this list of the benefits of being the top legal dude (or dude-ess), I must admit that I’m a little disappointed. After all of those years of working your butt off and slowly scratching and clawing your way to the top, you’d think you’d get something a bit more significant out of it. I’m not talking about much. You know, maybe just a small island or being dubbed a knight or something really rewarding like that.

Are there other benefits of being the GC that you think are the real top benefits? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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