At any organization, the role of general counsel is to advise leadership through legal challenges, regulatory issues, and decision-making. 

But at a high-growth tech company? Those challenges, issues, and decisions are evolving at lightning speed, making the job a slightly different ball game.

Whether you’re looking for your first in-house job or you’re a corporate attorney considering joining an early-stage company, here’s what you need to know about general counsel jobs at startups and beyond. We’ll cover the skills you’ll need, the salary to expect, and practical advice from experienced tech attorneys for how to secure a GC role.

Featuring Insights From:

Erik Phelps

Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative and Legal Officer at Tempus AI, Inc.,

Suk Kim

General Counsel at Zapier

Paul Slattery

General Counsel at Bolt Threads

Key Takeaways: 

  • A crucial skill for general counsels at tech companies is balancing risk avoidance with helping the company fuel innovation. 
  • Lawyers often work their way up to general counsel through other in-house legal roles, though some move directly from a law firm to a startup. 
  • Analyzing the tradeoffs of different startups and leadership teams can ensure you secure a role that’s the right fit. 
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The Basics of a General Counsel Role 

General Counsel Duties 

A general counsel isn’t just a lawyer, but a strategic partner across the organization. With a deep knowledge of the business, industry, and associated legal, regulatory, and compliance issues, a GC advises (and often guides) leadership on corporate planning, strategic decision-making, and growth. While general counsels at more established organizations may take the approach of avoiding risk at all costs, GCs at high-growth companies must balance that ingrained tendency with a company’s goals for speed and innovation. 

Of course, all GCs are tasked with day-to-day legal matters, like overseeing outside counsel, developing corporate compliance programs, and negotiating contracts with partners and vendors. But the big-picture strategic piece is what many attorneys enjoy most about their jobs at tech companies. “The way I like to think about it is: I’m a business person who’s focusing on legal issues,” says Elliot Mark, SVP and General Counsel at Everbridge.

What You Can Expect for a General Counsel Salary

Salaries for GCs vary widely with company size. The 2023 TechGC salary report found that annual base salaries at private U.S. tech companies — from bootstrapped startups to those backed by VC or private equity — ranged from $250,000 (at the 25th percentile) to $340,000 (at the 75th percentile), while total compensation including bonus and stock options was $292,500 to $429,488. The median salary for all private U.S. tech companies is $300,000 base, or $350,000 total comp.

At public companies, the compensation is higher, with a median base salary of $375,000 or $544,700 total comp.

TechGC members have access to our full reporting on salary data, including breakdowns by company stage and location. If you’re currently a GC or DeputyGC at a tech company, apply for membership today.

Required Skills for a Tech General Counsel Role

Erik Phelps, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative and Legal Officer at Tempus AI, Inc., summarizes the essential skills one needs as a tech GC as a “deep understanding of the business to be able to use one’s legal competency to ‘see around corners’ and help plan around problems before they even arrive.” 

That deep understanding — and the skill profile that potential employers will want to ensure you have — includes the following: 

    • Business fundamentals to effectively analyze the company’s financials, growth trajectory, and key areas of risk
    • A track record of collaboration with a variety of departments, business partners, and stakeholders 
    • Effective communication to articulate risk and offer guidance to other leaders, especially on complex or sensitive issues 
    • Management and organizational design knowledge to shape a legal team and hire and develop team members as a company grows  

Possible General Counsel Career Paths

Many GCs are promoted to the role from lower in-house legal positions, such as staff attorney or senior counsel, then move up to deputy general counsel or GC. This path may take years, especially within more established companies, but a step-by-step career approach offers the opportunity to learn from other leaders, hone your management style, and gain experience across legal functions before leading an entire team. 

Alternatively, some attorneys land their first GC role while they’re still associates at a law firm — a move that’s more common when joining a smaller organization or startup in an early round of funding. That can be a riskier path, but a more energizing one for those motivated to make an impact. “That’s a real opportunity to learn by fire,” says Penny Tehrani-Littrell, Managing Director and General Counsel at PE fund Accordion Partners.   

How to Pursue General Counsel Jobs

Articulate Your Career Vision

Many people jump into the job search by browsing any in-house jobs available, but it’s worth spending time considering your career priorities. Weigh how you feel about the various tradeoffs inherent to joining a tech company: A strong mission or a profitable model? Founders with a bold vision or those who’ve had successful exits? Deepening your expertise or learning about an entirely new industry?  

Zapier’s general counsel Suk Kim says that pursuing legal specialties, companies, and interests that truly pique your curiosity is key to a career that’s fulfilling and engaging for the long haul. “Pursuing my passions, both personally and professionally, has been an important part of connecting with people and teams who also do the same,” she says. “While having the appropriate level of legal expertise and capabilities is the baseline, your unique experiences, interests, and perspectives play an important role in determining your success in getting hired and your success in the position.”

Don’t Tell the World You’re Looking — Show It

OK, you should probably tell people you’re looking, too. Don’t just reach out to other lawyers, though; aim to connect with people who work in other roles in tech, who often have a pulse on job opportunities before they’re posted. 

But in addition to that, look for opportunities to position yourself as a thought leader, whether that’s posting your thoughts on recent trends or regulatory changes on LinkedIn or applying for speaking opportunities at conferences. Recruiters and connections will take notice and will be more likely to reach out if you’re active online.

Get Your LinkedIn Tech-Ready

Many people jump into the job search by browsing any in-house jobs available, but it’s worth spending time considering your career priorities. Weigh how you feel about the various tradeoffs inherent to joining a tech company: A strong mission or a profitable model? Founders with a bold vision or those who’ve had successful exits? Deepening your expertise or learning about an entirely new industry?  

Zapier’s general counsel Suk Kim says that pursuing legal specialties, companies, and interests that truly pique your curiosity is key to a career that’s fulfilling and engaging for the long haul. “Pursuing my passions, both personally and professionally, has been an important part of connecting with people and teams who also do the same,” she says. “While having the appropriate level of legal expertise and capabilities is the baseline, your unique experiences, interests, and perspectives play an important role in determining your success in getting hired and your success in the position.”

To that end, consider the following as you’re updating your resume and LinkedIn profile: 
      • Don’t just focus on your legal pedigree, but on the transferable business skills, such as analyzing growth opportunities, negotiating with partners, or making complex decisions, that position you for the roles you’re targeting.
      • Make note of key skills for your desired jobs. Pull a few job descriptions for general counsel jobs you’re interested in, and make note of words and phrases that appear frequently. These are the keywords recruiters use when they search LinkedIn for potential candidates, so ensure they’re weaved into your profile. 
      • Ask for recommendations from colleagues, partners, or clients. Try to secure at least one or two from those who work at high-growth tech companies, and ask them to focus on your ability to understand their business needs and collaborate effectively. 

Tap Into Sources of Tech Jobs

Tech companies often utilize third-party legal recruiters to fill positions, especially for their first in-house hire. Connect with them on LinkedIn or check their websites, where they will list their job postings. 

Many private equity and venture capital funds also post opportunities with their portfolio companies — and most are always on the lookout for strong talent to recommend. Look for networking events or other opportunities to connect with these companies. 

Prepare for the Interview

When you make it to the interview stage, recruiters and startup executives will want to see that you’re already operating with the mindset of a tech GC. Prepare to tell stories about how you approach challenges, how well you understand the business, and how you work with clients.

You can anticipate questions like these: 
    • Tell me about your experience advising clients on issues that aren’t strictly legal matters, such as reviewing financial statements or discussing a new business strategy.  
    • Tell me about a time you’ve had to challenge the opinion of the CEO or other C-level executives.
    • What is your management style? How do you think about growing talented team members and coaching underperforming employees?
    • How do you think about hiring outside counsel? What budget would you anticipate we need at this stage of the company?
    • What is the biggest crisis or risk you’ve navigated a company or client through? What were your key learnings? 
    • What experience do you have working with or presenting to a board of directors?

About TechGC

Called “the gold standard for legal peer groups” and “one of the best professional growth investments an in-house attorney can make,” TechGC is an invitation-only community for general counsels and CLOs of high-growth technology companies and leading venture capital funds. Over 2,000 GC members have access to 300+ world-class events per year, a robust online platform where GCs ask and answer pressing questions and share exclusive resources, and industry- and location-based salary survey data.

For more information, visit techgc.co or techgc.co/deputygc

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