Corporate counsel in Britain may be pushing the £1m mark in annual earnings, but they still lag behind their counterparts in the United States. The 2003 General Counsel compensation survey, carried out by Corporate Counsel magazine, found that despite the economic downturn, the US top 100 legal earners saw rises of 9% in their compensation packages in 2002, taking home an average combined salary and bonus package of $1m (£629,842). A poll taken by Legal Director magazine, revealed a general consensus that even at the top-end, the salary and bonus package for UK general counsel will rarely exceed £500,000 and more typically be around the £250,000 to £300,000 mark.

Britain’s highest paid general counsel are tipping the — but corporate counsel in the UK and Europe are still trailing well behind their US counterparts. Legal Week’s sister title Legal Director takes a look at compensation trends on both sides of the Atlantic

Bill Friedrich at BG Group may be forgiven for feeling pretty pleased with himself. Last year he ranked as the highest paid Ftse 100 legal director with a salary and bonus package coming in at £978,000, just £22,000 short of the magic £1m mark and an increase of 25% on the previous year.

But Friedrich is far from typical of UK corporate counsel. For one thing, he is not simply a legal director but also deputy chief executive to the group, a title which in itself automatically catapults him into the high-earning executive league. He is also a US-qualified lawyer, one of a growing band who now head up Ftse 100 legal functions.

While Friedrich tops the UK general counsel pay league, his compensation package is dwarfed by many of his American counterparts, according to a recent survey of the top paid US corporate counsel.

Ben Heineman at General Electric leads the American pack with a basic salary of $1.35m (£839,000), which together with a bonus payout of $2.58m (£1.6m) brought his total take-home pay up to a whopping $3.93m (£2.48m).

Second in line is Michael Fricklas at Viacom on a total take-home pay of $2.16m. Lower down the scale at number 10 is Gary Jacobs at MGM Mirage on $1.45m (£917,995).

Others on lower base salary packages made up for it by cashing in on stock options. The largest take-home pay went to Stephen Lambright at Anheusr-Busch — in 2002 he took home $10.13m (£6.29m) — more than $9m (£5.59m) of this was made up of cashed-in options.

But sums like these are ‘Alice in Wonderland’ figures, even to those general counsel who have made it to the top of the corporate ladder in the UK and Europe.

At the end of the day, the differential in pay reflects to a large extent the difference in the relative status of general counsel and how they are perceived by the businesses they serve on either side of the Atlantic.

“The in-house legal market in the US is much more mature and longer established than the in-house legal market in the UK,” says Siobhan Lewington, a consultant on the legal team at financial services executive search group Sheffield Haworth.

“As a result, general counsel in the US tend to have a much higher profile and wider role within their organisations, acting as advisers to the board and getting involved in senior management decisions.

The emergence of the new super-breed of general counsel is a relatively new phenomenon. Ten years ago, when Corporate Counsel conducted its first general counsel salary survey, the top 100 lawyers made on average $511,909 (£322,422) in combined salary and bonus. Average take-home pay since then has doubled.

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