A major part of the recruiting work we do at Princeton Legal Search Group is focused on growing in house legal departments and helping our clients find talented in-house counsel. Every day we speak to talented law firm candidates who express their goal of “going in-house.” And fortunately, we are often successful in ensuring that our candidates find the right in-house role for them.
Of course, the desire to go in-house is not at all surprising. For lawyers who are entrenched in the tough grind of a law firm practice, the idea of an in-house position means getting rid of working on the weekends, throwing away the politics of “face time,” and removing the yolk of billable hours. In short, an in-house position sounds like the legal-work equivalent of the holy grail.
Yet, there are some differences to in-house counsel work that fall outside the gaze of the proverbial ‘rose-colored glasses.’ Indeed, it is important to have a realistic picture of life on the in-house side of things to ensure that you know what you are getting when you eventually do land that in-house counsel job.
Accordingly, in this article we will discuss the differences between life at the law firm and life in a corporate legal department. In our experience, we find that candidates are much better interviewees for in-house counsel jobs when they have ‘looked under the hood’ of what an in-house position entails, rather than just seeing an in-house job as an escape from the law firm world.
- In-House Attorneys Typically Focus on a Single Industry
Unlike a law firm practice where you get the opportunity to get a flavor of different industries – we recall one Princeton Legal candidate who handled commercial contracts for clients as diverse as a cardboard box-cutting company and a famous motorcycle manufacturer – an in-house attorney must have a thorough knowledge of the corporation’s business, which is typically focused on one industry. In fact, an in-house attorney’s value comes from the depth of knowledge in one industry, rather than a breadth of knowledge in many industries.
Thus, as you plan your career move, make sure that you find and target an industry that interests you. Remember, all in-house jobs are not created equal. You want to be sure you focus on an employer in an industry in which you have experience, and some interest.
Further, once you are an in-house attorney, a good part of your job, unlike in private practice, will be to roll up your sleeves and see how the company operates, how it gets things done, and the source of revenue generation.
- The Marketing Does Not Stop When You are In-House
We all understand that marketing your practice, to build a book of business, is critical to success when you are a law firm attorney. Unfortunately, the need for marketing strategies does not disappear once you go in-house. Rather, the marketing just takes on a different form.
Instead of obtaining clients for your practice, part of your role as in-house counsel is to demonstrate how you are an asset as a trusted advisor to your one client – the company. You need to strive to garner a reputation as a thoughtful problem solver, not just a person in the legal department who raises legal roadblocks. Your job as in-house counsel is to raise legitimate legal concerns to be sure. Part of your value is to help to try and find a way to move an initiative forward in a legally compliant manner.
- Expect the Unexpected
It is not uncommon for a litigator to be surprised with a case development that he or she did not see coming. But, when you are in-house, there is an even bigger need on attorneys to be flexible with their calendars.
More frequently than in firm life, in-house attorneys will have their whole day’s schedule upended by breakfast. The key here is to not get rattled when that happens. Your day can easily go sideways because an executive has a need that has to be handled right away.
- As In-House Counsel, Your Interest Is Broader Than the Law
For most cases in private practice, your role as an attorney is finite. It is limited to one or several distinct issues confronting the client. You may be able to offer some business advice to the client on the margins, but the bulk of your work is on solving the legal issues at hand.
When you are in-house, the balance between the “big picture” and the legal issues is exactly the reverse. You need to engage with a problem facing your company in a comprehensive way that factors in your company’s entire business, and often goes beyond legal considerations. Thus, the transition from law firm to in-house requires a bit of a transition in mindset as well.
- Bread and Butter Considerations: Salary, Culture, and Flexibility
Saving the best for last, there are some major lifestyle differences between practicing in a law firm and working in-house.
First and foremost, there is the question of salary. As discussed above, an in-house position does not typically present the same time pressure and nonflexible work hours of a law firm. There is, of course, a trade off. The base salary for an in-house counsel position is generally lower than salaries at law firms. Be careful, however, to consider the total compensation package before deciding that an in-house salary is too low for you. Items like target bonuses and stock options may even tilt the scales a bit.
Second, the culture of a corporation is considerably different than a law firm. In a law firm, virtually all of your colleagues are lawyers, who all speak the same “legal language,” and share a common educational background. By contrast, in-house attorneys work in an office culture that is typically characterized by diversity. It can be a pleasant change, but remember that not everyone understands the law the way you do. Your communication skills need to flex to your audience (see article, “Advancing Your Career Through Communication Styles.”). Moreover, you have a lot to learn about business, which your legal background can only partially provide.
Finally, it is most likely that an in-house position will afford you the kind of work flexibility that a law firm job cannot. Again, one tradeoff that comes with a somewhat lower pay structure is the fact that in-house counsel generally do have greater control of their time.
When considering a move from a law firm to an in-house counsel position, be warned that the transition can be a bit more complicated than it initially appears. There is little doubt that such a career move can come with a host of benefits, particularly having more time to focus on your life outside of work. Yet, it is always helpful to look before you take a leap in your career. We hope that this article provides some assistance as you begin the journey in making in-house your home.