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Highest paid GCs equipped with high level of business acumen

General counsel are now at the table when new opportunities are being discussed.

It’s the dream of many in-house attorneys – and even many of their colleagues working at law firms – to earn a spot on the list that shows the highest-paid general counsel.

But before going on a personal spending spree, specialists in the placement of lawyers at companies caution there are some common threads on each person who makes such a list.

For instance, CBS GC Louis Briskman retired at the end of last year. Briskman first joined CBS in 1975 when it was Westinghouse Electric Corp.  He ranked No. 1 on the list of highest paid GCs in 2012, and was No. 2 in 2013. His last year’s total take-home pay was almost $24.9 million.

There are some other qualities found among GCs who earn among the highest compensation levels. Victoria Reese, global head of Heidrick & Struggles’ Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs Practice, said in an interview that the person has the “ability to look beyond what the law says to what are reputational risks.” That means seeing how something will be viewed by shareholders, government officials and the public. They advise the board and have the ability to retain, develop and hire the right legal team. The GC knows when to run something up the chain of command, too, “so there are no surprises,” she said. The top GCs also can work with fewer resources given that private law firm’s rates and legal department’s salaries may be increasing. They also need to be able to manage legal risk across the world, dealing with different jurisdictions. They need too to be creative, coming up with options to give the company the same result without impacting on risk. And they need to fit with the company’s and board’s culture, as well as being a “true business partner” to the board and CEO, she said.

CEOs and board members are looking for more women and minorities who have excellent legal backgrounds and interpersonal skills. Many are being hired for succession planning functions, too.

One example of a top woman GC is Marcia E. Backus, who has been vice president and GC at Occidental Petroleum since October 2013. Previously, Backus was a partner at Vinson & Elkins, where she headed the firm's Energy Transactions/Projects Practice Group. Also, while in private practice she worked with Occidental on multiple oil and gas transactions.

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein is a veteran writer and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. A graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has won several...

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