Survey Shows Growth in Corporate Counsel Pay, but ‘Ceiling Remains Hard to Reach’

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According to a 2021 survey by Above the Law, about 30% of in-house attorneys reported base pay of $200,000, while raises have been “relatively meager.” / Photo by Alexander Schimmeck via Unsplash.

In-house attorney compensation has risen over the past four years, according to a recent Above the Law survey, with two-thirds of respondents reporting base pay of at least $200,000. But few reported earning a base salary of more than $400,000.

The legal industry news site surveyed more than 1,000 corporate counsel for its 2021 In-House Compensation Survey. Of those surveyed, 30% said their base pay was approximately $200,000, representing the most common compensation level. In a 2017 ATL survey, $150,000 was the most common base pay level, reported by 30% of respondents.

The percentage of in-house attorneys reporting less than six-figure salaries decreased over the past four years. In 2017, 14% of respondents said they made under $100,000 in base pay, while in 2021 just 3% reported making less than that amount.

Corporate counsel working at private companies with fewer than 100 employees were more likely to report base pay of less than $100,000 compared to their counterparts at bigger companies. But fewer small business respondents (9%) made under six figures in 2021 compared to 2017, when 27% of attorneys at small private companies reported base pay of less than $100,000.

However, while “the floor has been raised,” the report said, “the ceiling remains hard to reach,” with only about 5% of respondents reporting base compensation of at least $400,000. Attorneys in major cities were more likely (7%) to report making at least $400,000, compared to just 3% of those in cities of less than a million.

About 6% of counsel at small companies said they made more than $400,000 last year, according to the report. In 2017, none of the attorneys from small companies reported making that much.

The survey also asked corporate counsel about bonuses. The largest group of respondents, or 23%, said their bonus was about 10-15% of base pay. Meanwhile, 18% said their bonus was typically 15-20% of base pay and 17% reported a bonus totaling 20-30% of base pay. Another 18% said they didn’t get a bonus, while 9% reported a bonus of more than 60% of base pay.

About 56% of in-house attorneys said they received stock compensation as a percentage of base pay, with more than half of those who received stock reporting stock worth less than 25% of their base pay. Attorneys at Fortune 250 companies were most likely (27%) to report receiving stock worth more than a quarter of base pay.

When it comes to raises, the largest group (26%) reported average raises of 3% in recent years. A quarter of respondents said they had gotten raises of more than 4%, up from 15% who reported similar big raises in 2017. In-house attorneys at private companies were more likely to report raises of more than 4% than lawyers at large publicly held companies.

The report noted that compared to law firms, raises for in-house attorneys were low. While stock and bonuses helped pump up the pay for corporate counsel, the “relatively meager annual increases and bonuses that are determined by base salary underscore the importance of that starting figure,” the report states. Attorneys should arm themselves with information when negotiating pay at a new in-house job, the report added, “because you may find yourself locked in.”

The ATL survey is the latest to shed light on what in-house attorneys can expect to be paid and how compensation levels vary between roles and companies. A survey released a year ago by ALM Intelligence revealed the average salary for general counsel and chief legal officers was $385,000 in 2020, up just slightly from the previous year, while total compensation for these roles averaged $573,000. 

The ALM Intelligence survey found that while pay for GCs was stagnant, the gap between law firm and legal department compensation was growing, with Big Law partners making nearly double the amount top in-house attorneys earn.

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