The Highest Paid In-House Counsel List – But How Should Their Pay Be Ranked?

The Highest Paid In-House Counsel List - But How Should Their Pay Be Ranked? 2

And the gender diversity issue that persists with In-House Counsel too

Pandemic or not, 2020 was generally a very good year for partners at Big Law, but General Counsel in the US Fortune 1000 companies ‘suffered’ a relatively flat years according to Corporate Counsel’s recently released 2021 GC Compensation Survey.

The average salaries were in the low half-million dollar range and bonuses were reduced with the mean bonus drop being from a little over $640,000 to just over $500,00, representing a 21 per cent decline.

The compensation survey is flawed in some ways because for General Counsel working in large, or even small corporations and startups, much of their compensation can come through equity and stock options (as we refer below). The pure measurement of cash compensation, being salary, bonus, and non-equity compensation, which is a conservative measure.

Legal writer and commentator David Lat noted in his Original Jurisdiction letter that many of the corporations suffered during the pandemic and were less able to make the switch to remote work like the law firms.

As Lat noted –

“The Corporate Counsel survey focused on the Fortune 1000, the nation’s 1,000 largest companies by revenue, and analyzed their proxy statements, which must disclose the compensation of the CEO, the CFO, and the three other highest-paid executives. So the ranking doesn’t include highly paid lawyers from companies outside the Fortune 1000, nor does it include GCs or CLOs who aren’t named in their corporations’ proxy statements because they aren’t among the most highly paid execs at their organizations.”

The top 10 of the highest paid General Counsel and CLOs and – as Lat noted – of the 466 companies in the complete chart the leading lawyer was not one of the highest paid executives.

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The Highest Paid In-House Counsel List - But How Should Their Pay Be Ranked? 4

Half of the lawyers in the top ten this year were not in the top ten last year, and two of them Top earning General Counsel is Viet Dinh at Fox, who was third place last year. Dinh gave up their base salaries for half of 2020 so the company to avoid layoffs. But he took home $6.8 million last year.

Next up is Bruce Campbell at Discovery Inc, who came in at $6 million in cash compensation, moving from number 4 last year.

What happened to the #1 and #2 earners from last year’s ranking? The highest-paid legal chief in 2019, Alan Braverman of The Walt Disney Co., fell to #72, with less than $1.6 million in 2020 cash compensation. Phillip Bantz, in his analysis of the rankings, offered this explanation:

Where Were Last Year’s Top 2 Best Paid In-House Counsel?

The top ranking General Counsel last year were Alan Braverman of the Walt Disney Company, who fell back into the 70s with $1.6 million after the entertainment giant hemorrhaged money and suffered a $7 billion loss for the 2020 fiscal year.

And the second top earner last year was the man who hit the law news headlines this year by telling law firms to bring their lawyers back into the office. Eric Grossman at Morgan Stanley didn’t make the list. If he was one of the company’s highest paid executives his income would be disclosed, but he isn’t.

Indeed half of the lawyers in this year’s top ten were not in last year’s top ten. A couple, Warner Music’s Paul Robinson and Playtika’s Michael Cohen were not ranked at all.

The Bloomberg Ranking

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Kent Walker

The Bloomberg rankings are far more bold, but their problem is that they take into account money that the counsel may actually never see. Hence the vast sums that see the likes of Alphabet (Google’s parent) have Kent Walker coming in at over $50 million, with Apple’s Katherine Adams coming in at just over half that figure at $26.2 million.

But to note with the Walker compensation is that over $50 million is vested over a four year period, which demonstrates the inherent disadvantage of the measure, notwithstanding that many of these GCs will become very wealthy, if they’re not already.

The top ten from the Bloomberg General Counsel list is below –

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The #1 spot on the Bloomberg Law list went to Kent Walker of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google (which is how I’ve listed it in my table above, for ease of recognition). That figure of $50.9 million is eye-popping—but as noted by Bloomberg, more than $50 million of it consists of stock awards, which will vest over four years in Walker’s case.

The Case For Gender Diversity With In-House Counsel

Interestingly, Katherine Adams made both the Corporate Counsel and Bloomberg Law lists, since she had high cash comp and high total comp, making her #7 on the Corporate Counsel list and #2 on the Bloomberg Law list.

The only other general counsel to make both of the top ten on both lists was Netflix’s David Hyman who came in at number 4 on the Corporate Counsel list and number 8 on the Bloomberg Law List. Hyman was another who rode the streaming service wave that profited hugely from the locked-in audiences during the pandemic.

As David Lat noted in his review of the payments, Adams was one of just three women in the Corporate Counsel top ten and three women in the Bloomberg Law top ten, reflecting that much-debated issue within the broader legal community of the gender diversity gap.

“So the ranks of the highest-paid GCs and CLOs, like the upper echelons of the legal profession more generally, could definitely use more gender diversity. Having three women in the top ten of the Corporate Counsel list was actually an improvement over last year’s list, where women represented just two of the top ten.”

It’s very apparent that as the in-house legal teams continue to grow and exert greater influence upon – and often pressure to perform – for the outside law firms, they can also provide handsome returns for the lawyers who work within them.

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