What Does a Chief Legal Officer Do? (Step-by-Step Guide)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 11 October 2022 | Published 22 November 2021

Updated 11 October 2022

Published 22 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A chief legal officer (CLO) is a senior leadership role within an organisation which requires significant leadership experience and a background in law. Becoming a chief legal officer can take commitment, hard work and time. Understanding how to become a chief legal officer can help you determine if it's the right career path for you. In this article, we answer the question 'what does a chief legal officer do', provide a step-by-step guide to becoming a chief legal officer, explain some key responsibilities and skills for a CLO and describe what you can expect to earn in the role.

What does a chief legal officer do?

Understanding the answer to 'what does a chief legal officer do' can help determine if it's a career path you want to explore. A chief legal officer oversees any business decisions or processes that require legal expertise. Their role is to minimise any risks facing the company on legal or regulatory issues, such as litigation, advising on contract negotiations or monitoring regulatory changes.

Those in this role are within the senior executive team of a business, and they typically work closely with the chief executive officer and chief financial officer. A chief legal officer also makes strategic business decisions and is responsible for providing guidance and counsel to the senior leadership team.

How to become a chief legal officer

Here's a list of steps that you can consider if you are interested in becoming a chief legal officer:

1. Complete a law degree

A background in law is an essential component of being a chief legal officer. Entry into law programs can be competitive, so doing well in your final year at high school is important so you can obtain a high Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) for university entry. If you don't get accepted into a law program, you can consider completing another degree, then pursuing a Juris Doctor degree. This program is a two-year graduate degree studied after you complete your undergraduate degree. Both course options can provide the skills and knowledge required for you to work as a lawyer.

Related: How To Become a Business Administrator: A Step-By-Step Guide

2. Undertake practical legal training and arrange approval to practise

Practical legal training can provide you with hands-on experience before you practise law. You usually obtain this through a separate training program after you have completed your initial study. Some Juris Doctor degree programs include practical legal training, so if you choose this option, an additional training program may not be necessary. Training programs usually take less than a year to complete and involve some online study and a set number of training days with an experienced lawyer.

Once you have completed your practical training, another requirement is that you get approval from the admissions authority in your state or territory before you can practise law. The authority approves your qualifications, which means you are eligible to practice law in the Supreme Court of your state or territory. If you want to work as a solicitor, you may to apply for a practising certificate from your state or territory's Law Society.

3. Get industry experience and complete supervised practice

After completing a degree, most graduates look for entry-level positions, usually within a law firm or other corporate business in a legal department. These entry-level roles provide opportunities to learn about the law, getting first-hand knowledge from experienced colleagues. Usually, there's an opportunity to gain experience in various departments or business units, and if you are proactive, hard-working and enthusiastic, there may be opportunities for career advancement.

If you're working as a new solicitor, it's mandatory to complete a supervision period for about two years, working with a practising lawyer. This supervision provides experience with clients, researching cases and creating legal documents. In addition, your supervisor may check your work and give you regular feedback. Once completed, you can begin working as a practising solicitor.

Related Read: How to Become a Lawyer In Australia

4. Pursue opportunities for career advancement

It's important to seek leadership opportunities and apply for promotions when they arise to advance your career. Explore working within corporate law to understand how businesses operate and legal implications that may require consideration. For example, if you're working within a law firm, approach lawyers specialising in corporate law and consider asking if there are job shadowing options or transfers available to gain experience in the field.

Additional areas you may wish to explore include mentoring opportunities, training junior lawyers, joining professional networks and associations and using your network to learn about career opportunities. You may also want to consider speaking opportunities at industry events when you feel confident to help build your profile.

4. Explore further study options

Many chief legal officers undertake further study, pursuing a master's degree relevant to business operations and strategies, like a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Being a chief legal officer requires a range of skills besides law experience. An MBA can help you develop a broader business knowledge, often involving case studies that are practical and conducted in a team setting.

Responsibilities of a CLO

The role of chief legal officer is a senior-level position. Along with managing legal teams, they work across various areas, including finance, strategic planning, business operations and project management. They can also oversee the company's records and relationships with key vendors and suppliers. Here's a list of some typical responsibilities a CLO may have:

  • leading business-wide legal strategies to protect the organisation

  • analysing and reviewing legal agreements, legislation and documents for the board

  • updating the leadership team and board on regulatory or legal changes that affect the industry or organisation

  • providing internal guidance and advice relating to legal matters in other business units

  • overseeing a company's in-house attorneys and legal department

  • working with the senior leadership team to develop policies and processes concerning the general management of the organisation

  • advising the CEO on legal implications for the business and strategic direction

  • litigating on behalf of a company

  • overseeing legal services required to meet corporate goals

  • establishing training programs to ensure all employees are aware of the legal protocols related to their roles or the business

  • leading internal audit programs to ensure the business is compliant

  • monitoring the relevant local, state and federal governmental regulatory bodies for any changes that impact the organisation

Top skills for a chief legal officer

Along with being an expert in corporate law, a chief legal officer needs a specific set of skills to help them succeed in their role. CLOs often work to help achieve the best outcomes for an organisation. Strong negotiation skills, relationship management, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence can benefit those in the role of CLO. Here are some additional skills that can help you be an effective CLO:

Leadership and initiative

As a CLO, you guide other members of the organisation on legal and business-related matters. Leadership skills are essential to lead and inspire your teams. Working independently and showing initiative is an important skill. For example, you can proactively look for issues and stay informed of any regulatory changes within your industry.

Related: 14 Leadership Qualities Found in Great Leaders

Communication skills

Strong written and verbal communication can be essential to succeed in a legal career. CLOs often draft and review legal documents. These types of documents require attention to detail, strong grammatical skills, and the ability to convey information clearly.

Related: Interpersonal Skills: Definitions and Examples

Judgement and analytical skills

CLOs read large quantities of information, so good analytical skills are an essential. Being analytical can help identify trends and patterns to identify critical information. Being a CLO requires you to make sound judgements, so it's necessary to think intuitively and use your learned experience to make decisions in this role.

Legal knowledge

In addition to having specific industry legal knowledge, it's important that CLOs stay up-to-date with current regulatory compliance and ethical issues that may apply to this industry. Monitoring court decisions that can have implications for a CLO's organisation is important. Joining professional organisations and subscribing to industry updates is a useful option to help keep up-to-date.

How much does a chief legal officer earn?

Chief legal officers, or general counsel, have a senior executive position, so their salaries reflect the responsibility of the role. The national average salary for a general counsel is $143,353 per year. Salaries can vary depending on industry, location and experience.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location. Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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