Demystifying In-House Titles

October 2, 2023
Kelly McNees

Like it or not, we’re in a title-centric profession. And it can be confusing — especially when you’re new to the legal industry — to distinguish among the many possible titles for in-house lawyer positions.

For legal marketers and business development professionals who regularly reach out to in-house departments, it can be tough to know the difference between Senior Counsel, Managing Counsel, and Chief Legal Counsel, to name just a few. It doesn’t help that titles may mean different things depending on the size of the company, the industry, and the size and structure of the particular legal department.

To minimize confusion and, we need to decode these titles. Understanding an in-house lawyer’s role and level of responsibility is key to helping you better target your intended audience. Titles can help you identify which client contacts have influence — and which ones have the authority to make decisions about buying legal services.

Here’s a rundown of common titles for in-house attorney roles, the responsibilities associated with each, and a general picture of how the hierarchy stacks up.

Most in-house legal departments are headed by the General Counsel or Chief Legal Counsel. Chief Counsel and Head of Legal are other synonyms for this role.

Responsibilities for the lead role generally include advising the company’s board of directors and the company’s officers in all legal proceedings. This person often reports directly to the company’s CEO and is considered a strategic business partner.

Next in line are Deputy General Counsel, Vice President of Legal, Associate General Counsel, or Assistant General Counsel. These are all ways of denoting the person directly beneath the GC or Chief Legal Counsel.

These roles are usually authorized to act as GC as needed. They may be general practitioners with responsibilities for several legal areas, or they may only oversee one portion of the business or one aspect of the legal department.

Some legal departments have senior attorneys who supervise lower-level staff attorneys. These titles include Senior Counsel, which usually refers to an in-house lawyer with extensive experience or tenure. Similarly, Managing Counsel often refers to someone who supervises staff attorneys, though (to make this more confusing) not all managing counsel have direct reports.

Also worth noting is that some legal departments have flattened their structure by essentially eliminating titles. These departments tend to have one GC working with multiple lawyers serving in Corporate Counsel roles.

If you aren’t sure of a contact’s title, don’t guess. Small differences in titles can signify major distinctions in seniority and responsibility. Check LinkedIn or the company website to confirm you have it right. And remember that titles change over time, as contacts are promoted. A little digging can go a long way toward making sure you’re reaching out to the right person at a new company.

And one final reminder we can’t help but add as you prepare your marketing outreach to this cohort: As with nouns like “aircraft,” “shrimp,” and “elk,” the plural of the noun “counsel” is “counsel.” Give your marketing materials a second glance before you send them out to make sure you’ve got this — and your contacts’ titles — correct!