A general counsel, or in-house counsel, is an attorney that handles the legal matters for a business. A small business might have only one in-house attorney, while a larger business may have several. The general counsel prioritizes legal issues for the business and may pursue litigation or work on transactional matters on behalf of the business.
As you start your small business or startup, you will not likely need to hire a general counsel, or in-house counsel, right away. Many businesses do not have enough work to warrant this expense and often hire an attorney to act as an outside counsel to their business. Outside counsel will work on projects and issues as they arise.
There are some instances where you may consider hiring a full-time in-house counsel for your business:
- If you plan on taking your business public you may want to consider hiring a general counsel six to twelve months before to handle the large amount of work and complicated legal issues.
- If you are facing a merger or acquisition an in-house counsel will be able to interface with all parties and sort out legal issues.
- If your startup or small business is growing very quickly, a general counsel will help ensure that potential legal issues are not missed.
The General Counsel most commonly reports to the CFO or the CEO and will need to work closely with the officers and directors on the business’s goals and budget constraints. Additionally, the following characteristics or skills may be relevant to your search for a general counsel:
- Prior In-House or Startup Experience: Prior experience helps ensure that the in-house attorney can manage the pace of work and act without much support.
- Business Acumen: In-house counsel will need to work within a budget according to the business goals when deciding which legal issues are high priority and disregarding those that are low value.
- Broad Legal Experience: A general counsel will need to manage issues stemming from many different areas of law. You may want to look for someone with a wide variety of legal experience.
- Ability to Communicate with Employees: A general counsel will need to explain legal issues and his or her recommendations in lay terms to employees at all levels.
- Engineering or Science Degree: If in-house counsel will be working with patents and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) then you might consider hiring someone who has a technical degree.
While you will not likely need an commercial lawyers to hire an in-house counsel for your business, you may want to ask an attorney with experience in small businesses or startups if it is the right time to hire one.