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Everything you need to know to get a job in the law, Part 3: Corporate legal departments

jobs in corporate legal departments

Welcome to the final installation of our three-part series, “Everything you need to know to get a job in the law.”

This time, we’ll be discussing some of the non-attorney positions that exist within a corporate legal department, including compliance officers, contract managers, and legal recruiters.

Before we go too far into the details of those positions, however, let’s take a few minutes to discuss what a corporate legal department looks like.

In most cases, these are like law firms that exist within a company and whose members serve one client and one client only – the company. By way of example, I have friends and colleagues who have worked in corporate legal departments (also called “going in-house”) for Google, Nike, Microsoft, and Apple.

Of course, those are giant companies that employ thousands of legal professionals across dozens of practice areas. Smaller companies may also have modest in-house legal departments with employees who are highly specialized in their industry.

Depending on the company, there could be hundreds of different job descriptions within a legal department, ranging from administrative assistants to the Chief Legal Officer. Today, we’re going to discuss three common job titles within a corporate legal department and, as in prior articles in this series, we’ll tell you what skills and education you might need to land one of these jobs.

Compliance officers

Compliance officers (also sometimes called compliance specialists) are incredibly important to any business. Basically, their job is to make sure the company’s actions, policies, and operations all comply with relevant laws and regulations.

The day-to-day duties of a compliance department largely depend on the company’s overall operations.

For example, a manufacturing company might have compliance officers trained in intellectual property to make sure the company isn’t infringing on any other company’s patents.

A multi-state construction company might have compliance specialists who ensure the company operates within each state’s OSHA laws and regulations.

Some industries like gambling, healthcare, and finance are more heavily regulated, so compliance officers are a critical part of daily operations. In other companies, compliance specialists focus more on things like marketing rules and intellectual property. The possibilities for the position are endless.

What skills do you need to be a compliance officer?

Compliance officers are highly skilled individuals.

Due to the nature of their work, they tend to be exceptionally careful people with a fondness for following the rules. These are the people that have to read (and often write) the terms and conditions.

Because they’re often mired in detailed regulatory mandates, compliance officers need to have strong attention to detail and the ability to interpret/apply the law to the company’s specific needs. This takes strong analytical skills and some creativity, too.

How much schooling do you need to be a compliance officer?

For the most part, compliance officers are going to need a bachelor’s degree.

Typically, however, that degree must dovetail with the company’s specific regulatory concerns.

For example, if a compliance officer is charged with making sure the company complies with federal tax regulations, they’ll probably need a degree in accounting.

How much do compliance officers make?

The average annual salary for a compliance officer is $71,235.

Compensation can vary wildly depending on one’s skills, experience, and the degree of specialized knowledge needed to perform their position.

Contract managers

Contract managers monitor the company’s legal agreements to ensure that the company is meeting its contractual obligations.

They might also prepare initial drafts of contracts, and then shepherd those contracts through the negotiation process until they are finally signed by all parties.

When it comes to routine tracking of existing agreements, a contract manager calendars contractual deadlines and communicates with company personnel to make sure all parties to the agreement are fulfilling their obligations.

What skills do you need to be a contract manager?

Contract managers must exhibit several important skills. Chief among those skills, of course, is the ability to understand all of the working parts of an agreement and what errors within an agreement might render it legally void.

That takes strong attention to detail and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to effectively communicate contract issues to a variety of potential signatories who may appear at the very top of the company’s org chart.

Organization is another critical skill for this legal job. Tracking deadlines, managing people, and following up at each stage are crucial.

How much schooling do you need to be a contract manager?

In most cases, a person will need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in some business-related field in order to become a contract manager.

That said, certification programs and specialized training are available through organizations like the National Contract Management Association.

How much do contract managers make?

The average salary for a contract manager in the U.S. as of February 2022 was $125,830.

Legal recruiter

As the name suggests, a legal recruiter is responsible for finding, vetting, and attracting top legal talent into the company’s legal department.

Legal recruiters will also arrange for interviews between recruits and company personnel and will typically oversee the entire recruitment process from first contact to an offer of employment.

Not every corporate legal department will have its own recruiting staff. The larger the legal department, the more likely the company is to have this position handled in-house. Smaller companies may outsource this to a specialized recruiting agency.

What skills do you need to be a legal recruiter?

Legal recruiters are in a league of their own and may need more specialized skills than anyone else in the legal department.

They’re part salesperson, part human resources professional, and part therapist. They have to be likable, persistent, and persuasive. Even though they don’t practice law, they need to know a lot about the legal industry.

Remember, legal recruiters must often cold-call highly-successful lawyers within private law firms to try to convince them to leave that job for one within the company. Consequently, they need to be in the know about the corporate cultures of law firms, the scuttlebutt about dissatisfaction among a firm’s attorneys, and must be charming enough to talk someone out of their current high-paying job.

How much schooling do you need to be a legal recruiter?

Technically speaking, legal recruiters need a bachelor’s degree and some training in human resources management.

In reality, however, many successful recruiters are former lawyers themselves. That experience allows them to have a greater degree of persuasion with potential recruits than someone who has never “walked the walk.”

How much do legal recruiters make?

The average salary for a corporate legal recruiter in the United States is $105,355.

If the person is paid on a per-deal basis, however, that sum can be substantially higher.

Indeed, recruiters typically draw a fee equaling 25% of a recruit’s first-year salary. If someone recruited ten people to the company in a year, each of whom earned a salary of $100,000, the recruiter’s compensation for those placements would be $250,000.

Corporate legal jobs — the big picture

Within the legal profession, corporate legal departments have a reputation for being more laid-back, friendly environments than private law firms or courthouses. Thus, if you’re looking for a job in the legal profession that offers relatively low-stress and 40-ish-hour workweeks, a corporate legal department might be just the place for you.

However, corporate legal jobs are competitive. If this is your ultimate goal, consider working at a private law firm to gain experience first.

Check out the other posts in this series for a closer look at legal jobs at private firms and jobs available in the court system.


  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson is the founder of Attorney To Author, where she helps legal professionals bring their book projects to life. She was a California attorney for nearly two decades before becoming a freelance writer, marketing/branding consultant, ghostwriter, and writing coach. Her upcoming book, Breaking Out of Writer's Block, Exercises and inspirations for getting the words out of your head and onto the page, is due out in September 2023.

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