A zillion years ago, titles were uniform in nature and meant the same thing at every level in every company. So employers and others in the profession knew where a lawyer stood in a legal department pecking order just by looking at his/her title.
This isn’t the case today. While some titles remain tried and true, others vary widely in the legal profiles they represent. A big part of this shift is due to the explosive growth of the in house legal department – particularly during times of economic vibrancy. As corporate employers sought to woo the best and the brightest to their side of the fence, they had to compete with the high pay and partner title potential from the law firms. So creating the most competitive offer was a must. Private “start-up” companies blazed the trail for the title revolution – as their cash restraints forced them to pull different offer levers to stay attractive. Without spending a dime more, employers dangled fancy sounding titles as part of their offering…and it worked. And today, employers continue to offer new and improved titles as a recruiting strategy. Given this market reality, it can be difficult to tell which is the best title for a particular role in this market – especially for those that are broader in scope.
So what is the best title for a broad legal role that reports to the General Counsel?
The most attractive title from a career perspective will vary – and will depend on the specific circumstances. For example, what might be the best title in a large public company may not be feasible or appropriate in a start up. Let’s look at the options:
Since the start-up legal departments tend to be quite small, a diverse role reporting to the GC may also be known as “The Number Two” in the department. The typical titles offered for such positions include AGC, AGC+ a practice area (i.e. AGC, Commercial or AGC, Corporate), Senior Corporate Counsel and sometimes Director. For the more mature start-up, Deputy GC may be thrown into the mix, but it isn’t the norm. None of these titles reach the VP level and most hover at or below a Director level. Where you will sit on the title spectrum will depend on your seniority and level of relevant experience. But you could also get lucky.
If you are on the more junior end, the “best” title is AGC. Why? Because AGC is the title that covers the widest set of lawyers in the market and can include more senior lawyers at select companies, which is to your career advantage when making your next move. If you are a more seasoned attorney, the “best” title is Deputy GC. If that is not available, then Senior Director/Director + practice specialty is next best (i.e. Senior Director/Director, Commercial or Senior Director/Director, Corporate) followed by AGC then Senior Corporate Counsel and finally, Corporate/Commercial Counsel.
Public company legal departments are more robust in size with a deeper bench and more admin infrastructure (this holds true for large private companies as well). In addition, they tend to be siloed, with each lawyer specializing or focusing in one area of expertise. So when a lawyer is tasked with broad responsibilities and reports to the GC, s/he tends to be an experienced, high-ranking lawyer in the department. Consequently, titles have a higher starting…and ending point. They include: Deputy General Counsel (which can also pair a VP or SVP in front of it), SVP or Vice President+ practice area (i.e. SVP/Vice President, Business Services or SVP/Vice President, Commercial), Senior Director…and AGC. If your career aspirations are high, the best title is Senior Vice President, Deputy GC with Vice President coming in second. If it’s a choice between Vice President + practice area and Deputy GC, choose the VP title – as it is more marketable for General Counsel or Head of Legal roles should you aspire for such positions in the future.
Lawyers care about titles. So securing the best of them is often a high priority throughout a career. But the evolution of the profession has given many titles broader applicability and has created uncertainty as to what they actually mean. It also has attorneys wondering, “Which one is best for me?” As an attorney in a diverse role reporting to the GC, you’ll encounter a few designations that can professionally define you. But your best title will depend on a few factors. So review the information above and see where your profile falls on the line of names. And pursue the one you’d like to call your own.