Gary Lynch

What’s more stressful: working in-house, or working at a law firm? Conventional wisdom might say that law firm life is more stressful — but that’s not the case for everyone, as recently explained by one of our in-house columnists, Susan Moon.

So in-house lawyers might be more stressed than many people think. But at least they’re getting paid a pretty penny to put up with all these headaches — mo’ problems, mo’ money?

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from Corporate Counsel’s new rankings of the nation’s best-paid general counsel. Conventional wisdom holds that in-house lawyers earn less than their Biglaw counterparts — but top in-house lawyers, the GCs of the nation’s largest companies, earn sums that meet or even exceed Biglaw partner pay….

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GCs did very well for themselves last year.

At our recent Seattle event with in-house counsel — by the way, thanks to all the attendees and to Recommind, our sponsor — I asked the panelists about what they most enjoy about in-house practice. Christi Muoneke of DocuSign and Brad Toney of Classmates Media both discussed the satisfaction they get from working for a single client on interesting issues that call for both legal and business judgment.

Of course, there are many other good things about working as an in-house lawyer (which is why in-house posts are so coveted). Liberation from the billable hour is one big advantage. Healthy pay packages are another.

At junior levels, Biglaw associates who go in-house might take a pay cut (although not necessarily). But many of the top dogs of the in-house world earn amounts that far outstrip average partner pay.

Let’s take a closer look at Corporate Counsel’s recently released rankings of the nation’s best-paid general counsel. Some GCs enjoy pay packages that make Biglaw partners look like paupers….

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Last year, all things considered, wasn’t a bad year for Biglaw. The law firms of the Am Law 100, for example, experienced decent growth. In 2011, for the Am Law 100 as a whole, gross revenue grew by 5.3 percent, revenue per lawyer grew by 1.9 percent, and profits per partner grew by 3 percent. It was a perfectly fine year for partners.

How did their counterparts on the corporate side fare? Alas, not as well, according to Corporate Counsel’s latest compensation survey of the nation’s general counsel. Base pay for GCs in the survey declined by 1.8 percent, to an average of $611,411. Bonuses and nonequity incentive pay slid by an even larger number, 7.7 percent, to an average of $1,125,458. Meanwhile, in terms of non-cash compensation, the average stock award fell by 10.8 percent, to $1,426,325, and the average stock option award dropped by a whopping 18.7 percent, to $732,453.

These are just the top-line figures — which, of course, conceal a lot of individual variability. Let’s take a look at some specific names and numbers, as well as the top ten highest-paid general counsel….

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