Compensation Trends for In-House Legal Counsel

January 7, 2021

Setting fair compensation strategies for lawyers might not be simple nor straight forward, especially if the lawyer holds an in-house legal counsel job.  Determining a competitive compensation package for corporate counsel could become even more complex.

As in-house legal recruiters, we frequently receive inquiries from in-house counsel of all levels, C-Suite executives and Board members, as well as human resource professionals, all seeking real time advice regarding corporate counsel compensation.

In fact, such calls for help and guidance coupled with the general lack of compensation data for in-house legal departments is exactly what drove us to initiate the In-House Counsel Compensation & Career Survey in collaboration with the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association (CCCA).

Since 2009, we’ve monitored the trends reported in each edition, which echo much of what we have heard over the years when interviewing candidates or when providing talent management strategies and consulting with Management Committees and Boards regarding compensation.

Compensation Structure

Unlike in private practice, decision-makers developing compensation structures for in-house counsel cannot look at base salary alone.  To retain top legal talent long term in corporate departments, a more holistic approach is necessary.  Base salary stands as but one aspect of an entire compensation package.  Short and long term bonuses, benefits and other incentive programs are an integral part of in-house compensation.

Work-Life Balance

In comparison to other Canadian corporate executives and senior managers, in-house counsel surveyed respond as generally satisfied with their work/life over the years. We’ve also seen work/life balance fluctuate relative to economic conditions.  In good economic times employment in corporate legal departments is more stable and workloads manageable.  In bad economic times however job security and work/life balance is tested and of greater concern.

Regional Compensation

Results reviewed from prior surveys have demonstrated the significant differences in compensation across the country.  The economic engines of Alberta and Ontario are consistently the highest paid regions in the country, whereas Eastern Canada and Quebec are typically lower than the national average.  While the national average itself might move a couple of points one way or the other in each of the survey reports we have published – the general positioning of the regional differences remains pretty constant.


Industry and Sector Compensation

Average base salaries of in-house counsel in private companies is typically higher than those of government or Crown corporations. Consistently, the highest paid industry sector has been oil and gas however that has flattened in recent years relative to economic performance of the sector.  The telecommunications industry has been the lowest paid sector for in-house legal counsel.


Salary Increases

As expected ebbs and flows are evident in results within this category over the years.  We’ve seen salary increases for in-house lawyers across the board and we’ve witnessed declines.  What we have learned given the fluctuations and lack of an obvious trend is the greater importance for senior management and HR professionals to remain diligent and aware of current lawyer salaries and their expectations each year to ensure the approach to any salary adjustment is fair and competitive.


Most in-house counsel respond that their compensation package is the most important factor they consider when debating whether to stay with their current employer or make a career move.  However, the degree to level of importance does move seeing lawyers consider other factors.  This category in particular is one which leaders should remain in tune to so they have the best opportunity to retaining the lawyers in-house that they want.


Gender Impact

On average, the base salary of female in-house counsel remains lower than that of male in-house counsel. This is reflective of the fact that more women hold Counsel positions whereas more males are in Senior Counsel and General Counsel roles. The gap is more indicative of the difference in roles and responsibilities as opposed to compensation.


Looking Ahead

Going forward as we prepare our survey each year, The Counsel Network is mindful of the specific data sets necessary to gather in order to ensure the results are meaningful for all in-house counsel regardless of region, industry or seniority.


Sameera Sereda is the Managing Partner and Chair, In-House Counsel Division at The Counsel Network, a Canadian legal recruitment firm specializing in legal talent management strategies covering all levels of lawyers and practices for both corporate legal departments and law firms. To discuss compensations strategies, contact Sameera at or 403.444.1763. 


Join our network to receive helpful news and information from the legal profession.

Follow us @Counsel_Network