Private firms and government jobs aren’t for everyone. Some law students are a much better fit in-house at a company. This is where you can focus on one client and sometimes multiple different practice areas. When deciding if that work lifestyle is right for you, there are a few things you need to know:
1. Size matters. Larger companies will have in-house legal departments comprised of two or more attorneys, typically titled “general counsel” (partner-level attorney) and “associate general counsel” (associate/counsel level attorneys). Smaller organizations may have only a single in-house attorney. The size and structure of an in-house legal department will dictate whether an attorney jumps between practice areas or only focuses on one.
2. Understand the industry. Regardless of the size of the company, in-house counsel will invariably need to be knowledgeable in the practice area that directly relates to the company’s industry. For example, in-house counsel at a real estate development firm must have some working knowledge of real property, title, and land use law. In addition, most companies, regardless of their industry, inevitably encounter legal issues relating to their employees and commercial transactions. For that reason, attorneys with at least a working knowledge of employment and corporate law usually have more opportunities to go in-house.
3. Know your role. The demands, responsibilities, goals, and pressures of an in-house counsel position vary greatly by industry, company size, and organizational culture. Some in-house counsel positions are one-dimensional, isolated roles relied upon only when business people seek approval before moving forward with a project or plan. Other in-house attorneys interact with people throughout the entire organization and are involved in strategy and planning of business initiatives. Generally speaking, the smaller the company, the more dynamic the in-house counsel role. No matter what, unlike attorneys at law firms, in-house attorneys do not need to engage in the activities designed to attract or retain any other clients. They already have only one client—the company.
4. Family-friendly hours, for now. Most in-house counsel typically work “regular hours” and have more control over their schedule than attorneys at law firms. In-house is often an attractive alternative career for attorneys who start their career at large private law firms and want to transition to a less-demanding work environment. Law students, however, should be aware of a recent trend emerging for in-house positions. Companies seeking to cut costs have begun demanding more from in-house counsel and restricting the amount of legal fees they can incur from outside firms. In-house counsel positions at these companies will be just as demanding as law firm positions, if not more so.
5. Salary will get you in the door. Bonus and stock will make you stay. In-house compensation is typically structured as salary that is generally lower than law firms and tends to increase at a slower pace. Thus, many attorneys transitioning from firm to in-house may take a pay cut. Further, there tends to be a ceiling for salaries in-house, whereas private firms there is no limit—the more clients you have, the more money you make. However, the major carrot for in-house positions is that sometimes they may experience substantial financial gain by acquiring stock in a growing company that gets bought, merges, or goes to IPO. Bonuses in-house may also be tied to company performance, which can present a huge upside.
6. Right next to the business. In-house counsel positions are a great fit for attorneys who understand and appreciate the business-mind. Unlike law firms where there are attorneys everywhere, the work environment in-house is more business-centric. In-house attorneys spend their days conversing with business people (CEO/COO/President/etc.) and can gain a deep and thorough perspective on how their business runs.
In the end, you must acknowledge that no two in-house positions are the same. If you are considering a career path leading towards in-house, make sure you understand all the different variations and try to focus in on what you want. If you are interviewing and/or applying for a position, be sure to ask the relevant questions so you fully-understand what you are getting yourself into. If you find the right fit in-house, it can be an extremely rewarding career.