Job titles in the in-house legal world

Here we look at how legal job titles vary across the in-house world. We highlight the similarities and variations and set out how they’re most commonly used.

In law firms, job titles are generally standardised. However, that’s not so much the case in the in-house world where organisations may have identical legal roles but different titles. If you’re job hunting or recruiting, an awareness of these differences will help you avoid passing over a great career opportunity or a potential candidate.

What’s in a title?

As an in-house lawyer you’re used to navigating legal minefields from time to time.

But how well do you know your way around the burgeoning lexicon of in-house lawyer job titles?

As the world becomes ever more complex, what were once niche disciplines are now becoming mainstream, while new specialisms emerge on an almost weekly basis. Ads for digital marketing counsel and data privacy counsel, for example are ubiquitous on legal profession job boards today. They were unheard of in the not-so-distant past.

Why is this important?

Job titles matter. Candidates looking for a new role will search for jobs using certain key words. They’ll see rows of job titles and make quick-fire, and possibly subconscious, decisions as to whether a role matches their skills, goals and seniority level before reading further.

Meanwhile, recruiters - and especially headhunters – look at people’s job titles to ascertain in the first instance if a potential candidate is right for their vacancy.

This is where difficulties can arise. Candidates may get the wrong idea about an advertised role simply because they don’t recognise the job title – even if they’re already doing the job, but just under a different name. And a hiring organisation may overlook the ideally-qualified candidate simply because their current title may relate to an existing, but very different, role in their business.

Heading things up

At the senior end of the legal hierarchy, things are quite straightforward, because most job titles reflect both the nature of the role and its associated level of seniority. So:

General Counsel (GC) is almost always the most senior person on the legal team. The post holder is most likely to be a board member or if not, will represent the legal department at board meetings and deal with the board/C-suite as required. Conglomerates may have a Group General Counsel who oversees legal strategy and a budgetary framework across the group of businesses, leaving GCs at each subsidiary to structure their teams and make decisions appropriate to their sector and/or jurisdiction.

Deputy General Counsel is, as the title suggests, the second in command in the team. Most common in large global organisations, the Deputy General Counsel is likely to head up a regional team or subsidiary legal function and deputise for the GC as required. Some organisations prefer to use Associate GC or Assistant GC to Deputy GC.

Head of Legal – If a company doesn’t use the GC term, the Head of Legal usually performs the same duties and has the same level of seniority. Where both roles exist in the same organisation, the Head of Legal typically operates in the Deputy GC role (see above and reports directly to the GC.

Legal Contracts Manager – this is a role for those who enjoy the nitty gritty of legal agreements. The in-house Legal Contracts manager works in organisations that generate high volumes of contracts with suppliers, customers, contractors, sub-contractors. As well as keeping these contracts up to date with changing legislation, the Legal Contracts Manager must ensure they’re legally enforceable and signed by people with appropriate authority. The role is often, but not always, performed by a qualified lawyer.

Subject matter experts

This is where the waters get slightly muddied as different organisations use varying terms. Does the Financial Services Regulatory Lawyer at Company A enjoy greater seniority or do a different job to that of the Legal Counsel – Financial Services at Business B? Probably not, unless factors such as company size and the extent to which financial services are core functions are in play. Typically, you’ll see roles for subject matter experts expressed in any of these formats (and quite possibly other ways too):

  • Derivatives lawyer / Funds lawyer / Governance lawyer;
  • Data privacy counsel / Competition counsel / Employment counsel; o
  • Legal counsel – regulatory and compliance / Legal counsel – data privacy.

  • As with job titles elsewhere across the organisation, these may embellished by modifiers such as junior, senior, lead and others. All of which means that: In-House Lawyer is a very general term covering any lawyer working at any level of seniority in any organisation’s legal department.

    Finally, let’s not forget the non-lawyers, because: Paralegals and Legal Executives are those people who, while not necessarily qualified as lawyers, play a key role in legal teams. Among their duties, for example, are conducting research and writing reports, providing admin support, drafting legal documents for a lawyer to sign off on and creating and maintaining libraries and databases.

    Closing

    Unlike in law firms, legal team job titles vary across organisations that have in-house legal functions. At best, this causes nothing more than harmless confusion. At worst, however, it can mean candidates being overlooked for a role or job hunters themselves disregarding a potentially great career opportunity simply because the job title fails to resonate. Understanding how job titles vary can help avoid these pitfalls.