Lawyer pay

Top company lawyers take a pay hit

July 31, 2012: 1:34 PM ET

Last year's surprising 30% drop in compensation for in-house counsel could set the stage for cuts in CEO pay as shareholder ire over executive compensation grows.

By Elizabeth G. Olson

FORTUNE -- Top company lawyers make great money, but their compensation has taken a sizeable hit recently, even as corporate coffers bulge. And last year's surprising 30% drop in overall compensation for in-house counsel could ripple out and set the stage for CEO pay to be the next belt-tightening measure in the corner office.

Dozens of chief legal officers named in the newly released Corporate Counsel pay survey still made well over $1 million last year. But the overall plunge in legal officer compensation packages has sprung from the still-uncertain economy and pressure from shareholders who want more demonstrable links between performance and pay.

The blockbuster 28.7% rise in cash bonuses in 2010, according to the survey in the August issue of Corporate Counsel, was knocked aside last year when cash bonuses sank 7.7% to an average of $1.13 million, for chief legal officers.

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"The drop reflects the retrenchment in the larger economy," says James Wilber, a principal at Altman-Weil, a legal management consulting firm. "You saw significant compensation increases in 2010 because people thought the recovery was beginning, and issues like what is happening in Europe were not even on the radar. Now it is becoming common to see companies giving less guaranteed money."

Last year, corporate counsels saw their salaries dip by 1.8% to an average of $611,411. In addition to the decline in cash compensation -- which the survey ranked -- the average stock award for the highest-level legal beagle fell by 10.8%, to $1.43 million, and the average stock option award dropped by 18.7%, to $732,453. More

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