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Pros and Cons of Being a Solo General Counsel

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on March 23, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's one thing to be in house counsel; it's another thing to be general counsel. If you're general counsel, you're it. Things get even hairier if you're solo general counsel. The legal position of the executives and the entire company essentially rests on your professional legal opinion because you're the only one around in your immediate company that's passed the bar. The way you stand on a particular issue could mean feast or famine for your company. No pressure.

Being general counsel certainly does much to burnish your ego, but have you considered some the overall pros and cons of being general counsel?

Pros of Being Solo General Counsel

1. You're Alone

So, you're the only one with a law degree. This means that as a solo general practitioner, your legal opinion about a legal issue matters. This has the surprising characteristic of making your own opinions matter more to you. Since the responsibility is essentially yours and yours alone, you will probably take the initiative to go out and actively research strange and novel legal issues. This sort of initiative is more difficult to summon when you work with a team because of the tendency to rely on others. Being alone in a legal department can be a plus because it will encourage the best part of your professional side to display its best.

2. You Get Long Hours

There's this myth that in house lawyers enjoy cushy jobs with stable hours from 10:00 to 4:00, and that you and fellow employees will be dancing to feel-good tunes night and day. That may be true for some in house attorneys, but that certainly not the case for solo general counselors -- especially not SGCs at small companies with a limited budget and short history. The smaller the company, the more stake you will have in getting this company firmly planted and barked up. Your company is most likely still a sapling, vulnerable to the exposure from business cycles, creditors, bad deals, and legal hurricanes. But the plus side is that long hours wills help you find the limits of your work ethic. And by the time you see "burn out," your hours will probably taper back as the company gets a few years old.

3. The Variety

If you're solo general counsel, your resume will practically write itself within just the first year. Imagine it. You will be involved in pretty much every single major decision affecting your one client. Mergers. Sales. Contracts with other companies. Hiring. Compliance. You name it. Now imagine all of that on your resume.

Cons of Being Solo General Counsel

1. You're Alone

You'd better be your best friend because you'll be a lot of talking to yourself -- or at least thinking to yourself. Fortunately, you're not totally alone in this solo lawyer thing. The Association of Corporate Counsel has one of the largest membership pools of solo in-house lawyers in the country. About 18 percent of its members are just that. Join ACC and you can talk to other lawyers just like you and vent. That'll help you manage to stay sane.

2. You Get Long Hours

Many things in life are a double-edged sword and the long hours that in-house lawyers have to suffer are all part of the game. Your stake in the company is bigger than if you were just an employee. If you wanted to foreclose the idea of long hours, being a lawyer was a bad career choice. Still you could always seek out government work. Those hours are famously consistent.

3. The Variety

Company lawyers have the responsibility of wearing many hats and knowing many areas of law. For some people, this idea of multiple areas of law is a bit of a turn off and can even induce panic. A solo general counselor is basically one rung below a general practitioner in terms of sheer variety. If you want to eventually move into a more boutique environment in the future, your generalist business legal history may hinder your easy slide into that career change, but frankly, it's nothing that can't be fixed with a good cover letter.

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