Pay packages are growing for legal department leaders in the land, including general counsel in the metro Atlanta area and Southeast region, according to the 2017 General Counsel Compensation Survey, conducted by Daily Report affiliate ALM Legal Intelligence. It's a welcome change from last year's results, which saw a slight drop in compensation, and fulfillment of executive compensation experts' predictions that Southern GCs had reason for optimism about their pay in upcoming years.
Acknowledging the limits of our quantitative data, the Daily Report discussed big-picture trends with Bob Graff, an Atlanta-based partner and recruiter in the in-house practice group at legal search consultants Major, Lindsey & Africa. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The ALM data demonstrate that, nationally, average total cash compensation—which includes salary, bonus and long-term incentive program—for GCs grew 3 percent in 2016. Is that the case in metro Atlanta?
Yes, I think pay packages are continuing to grow. If the economy's growing, and companies are doing well, then they are going to reward their executives, including the general counsel.
And is that what's happening now?
I think so. No one is super excited about two-percent-a-year growth, but it's a lot better than what we saw in '09, '10, '11 or '08. At least we're not contracting anymore.
I think the South benefits a little bit just from the Sunbelt migration. In the Rust Belt or the Northeast, a lot of those cities are losing population, and we're gaining population. We pick up Mercedes[-Benz USA, which announced in January 2015 that it would relocate to Sandy Springs from Montvale, New Jersey], or we pick up new companies fairly regularly, and I think that helps.
One trend we've seen over the past few years is GCs' growth in strategic importance to their companies, often increasingly assuming additional roles such as chief compliance officer, vice president of human resources or corporate secretary. Does this growing importance play a role in increased GC compensation?
That's more of a case-by-case [scenario]. If GCs are taking on a broader executive role, certainly they are going to have a shot at increasing their pay, but I don't think it always goes that way. Sometimes it's just the company saying, "Take this on," and I think that [increasing compensation accordingly] is not the norm. I think the economy is a more important factor.
And individual company performance. The economy can be doing well, but if your company stubs its toe, you're not going to get your bonus.