General counsel

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General counsel
/ˈʤɛnərəl ˈkaʊnsᵊl/ (n.)
A handsome, silvered fifty-five year-old midwesterner with the bearing, and legal acumen, of a 747 pilot. If you encounter him in the lift he won’t have a clue who you are, even though you have worked in his department since 1998.

General counsel are so named because they have distilled all the manifold devilish details of legal practice which haunt and propel their junior colleagues down to the single general principle by which the common law is organised: precedent. Their first, and most likely last reaction to any conundrum they face will be to ask: “What have we done when this sort of thing has come up before?”

They can thereby float above the messy tedium of actual legal work. They owe their elevated position to a knack for side-stepping difficult decisions — something which, in a large organisation during peacetime, it is easy to do, especially one with well-functioning escalation circles. Being commander-in-chief of the armed forces is a cinch when the nation is not at war. Even in the torrid markets of the last decade, for the most part, the nation has not been at war.

The secret of one’s success

But no-one likes to admit they simply tinned it. Thus, most general counsel are inclined to attribute their success to their own extraordinary judgment, commercial nous and deep client relationships rather than having had the fortune to be mucking about in a dinghy on the tidal flats when the mother of all rising tides came in, floating even the meagre barque they happened to be sitting in.

This will not be how they remember it. General counsel will even, occasionally but without irony, accept industry awards for their talents. Those with an ounce of self-awareness will loudly attribute any such gongs to the relentless hard work and unique skill mix of their team, without which none of their legerdemain would have been possible. Then again, GCs and self-awareness go together like soup and naval signaling systems.

The main challenge for a modern-day general counsel is justifying his position at all. He likes to be seen as a visionary — an agent for change; a revolutioniser — whilst being nothing of the sort: one does not rise to the top of a profession designed to systematically beat creative thought out of its practitioners[1] by being a left-field kind of guy.

Talking the talk

A GC will therefore speak frequently of his grand strategic vision and consuming fascination with technological development. When not consenting to video-interviews for the firm’s intranet, a good GC will be advocating “resource fluidity”, commissioning detailed, multi-dimensional risk taxonomies, or extolling the potential benefits (and/or existential threat, depending on whom he is addressing) of cyber[2] or artificial intelligence to discharge the traditional role of a qualified legal advisor. Chatbots, you see, will shortly replace humans for cross-border marketing and regulatory advice.

In essence, a general counsel will talk a great game, but will hand practical management of the “90 minutes” to his ball-breaker of a COO, a management consultant without the first clue about the law, let alone what a modern legal department actually does, who in turn will saddle jobbing lawyers with the hard-yards of thinking up something meaningful way of filling out the boxes in his PowerPoint deck. Jobbing lawyers who, you’d think, would be better spending their time managing risk, rather than peering into their navels looking for it.

How to become general counsel of an investment bank

Not easy, if you are not to the manor born.

It will help if you have clerked for the Honourable Orville W. Baldeagleburger of the United States Court of Appeals for the Nineteenth Circuit, having graduated magna cum laude and Omicron Delta Kappa from Gomorrah College, U Idaho — but even all that will be for nought if you haven’t been senior partner at the particular white-shoe law firm which has, for twenty years, held the legal department you intend to preside over under its spell.

The JC did a little research: of the GCs of the bulge bracket investment banks, not one GC in the last twenty years or so has not been a partner of a whiteshoe firm. Your best bets: Davis Polk, Sullivan & Cromwell, and WillmerHale, though Gibson Dunn & Crutcher has also cut a swathe through the Swiss market of late.


The collective noun for a group of general counsel is an “adoration”.

That IB GC diversity roster in full

If you wanted proof that, at the same time, diversity is alive and well and utterly absent from the upper echelons of investment banking, our handy list of General Counsel, past and present, will give you the satisfaction and/or outrage as you require it. There are as many women as there are men, and those of all faiths and ethnicities are eligible. As long as you have law-clerked for Eagleburger J of the eighty-fifth circuit and been managing partner at Wilmer Hale or Sullivan & Cromwell, the job is yours for the asking!

Caption text
Firm Domicile When Who Partner at Prior Form Clerkships
JPMorgan Chase US Current Stacey Friedman Sullivan & Cromwell S&C lifer. Clerk for the Honorable Gary L. Taylor, United States District Court, Central District of California.
Goldman Sachs US Current Kathryn Ruemmler Latham & Watkins LLP Previously, she served as counsel to President Barack H. Obama and was his longest-serving White House counsel. She also served in the Department of Justice, including as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, Deputy Director of the Enron Task Force, and Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Earlier in her career, Ms. Ruemmler served as Associate Counsel to President William J. Clinton. Law clerk to Judge Timothy K. Lewis of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Goldman Sachs US 2000-2011 Esta Stecher Sullivan & Cromwell S&C lifer. None reported.
Citigroup US Current Brent McIntosh Sullivan & Cromwell Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. White House Associate Counsel to the President and then as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Staff Secretary law clerk to two federal appellate judges, Dennis Jacobs of the Second Circuit and Laurence H. Silberman of the D.C. Circuit.
Bank of America US Current Lauren Mogensen Edwards & Angell, LLP (now Locke Lorde LLP) Bank of America for two decades. None reported.
Morgan Stanley US Current Eric Grossman Davis Polk & Wardwell Davis Polk lifer. Clerked for the Honorable Richard J. Cardamone, U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, from 1993 to 1994.
UBS Swiss Current Barbara Levi None reported Novartis, Rio Tinto (no ... financial services?) None reported.
Credit Suisse Swiss Current Markus Diethelm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher UBS None reported.
HSBC UK Current Bob Hoyt Wilmer Hale GC at Barclays. GC at PNC Financial Services Group. General Counsel to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr at the US Department of the Treasury. Associate Counsel to US President George W. Bush. Clerked at the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Wells Fargo US Current Ellen R. Patterson Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP TD Bank Group None reported.
Barclays UK Current Stephen Shapiro Hogan Lovells SABMiller plc (no ... financial services?) None reported.
Santander Spain Current John Collins Inhouse lifer. Citigroup, ABN AMRO Royal Bank of Scotland None reported.
RBC Canada Current Maria Douvas Paul Hastings federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York None reported.
Deutsche Bank Germany Current Karen Kuder Inhouse lifer. DB lifer. None reported
JP Morgan US 2007-2016 Steve Cutler Wilmer Hale Head of enforcement at the SEC, Simpson Thatcher now Law clerk for Judge Dorothy Nelson on the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Wells Fargo US 2017-2020 C. Allen Parker Cravath, Swain & Moore Cravath lifer. Law clerk to the Honorable Amalya L. Kearse of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
JPMorgan US 2003-2006 Joan Guggenheimer Inhouse lifer. Smith Barney, Citi, Bank One, JPMorgan None reported.
Goldman Sachs US 1991-2019 Greg Palm Sullivan & Cromwell S&C(adolescent) lifer. Law clerk to Henry J. Friendly at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. And law clerk to Lewis F. Powell at the United States Supreme Court.
Goldman Sachs US 2018-2021 Karen Seymour Sullivan & Cromwell Headed justice department criminal division. Gone back home to Sullivan & Cromwell None reported.
UBS Swiss 2012-2022 Markus Diethelm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher Credit Suisse since. None reported.
Citigroup US 2012-2021 Rohan Weeragsinghe Shearman & Sterling Senior Partner at Shearman None reported.
Barclays UK 2013-2020 Bob Hoyt Wilmer Hale GC at HSBC. GC at PNC Financial Services Group. General Counsel to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr at the US Department of the Treasury. Associate Counsel to US President George W. Bush. Clerked at the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

See also


  1. The doctrine of precedent, anyone?
  2. Yes, he will call it that.