Biglaw, Conferences / Symposia, General Counsel, In-House Counsel

In-House Counsel v. ‘Outhouse’ Attorneys

If the professional world were a zoo, Biglaw attorneys and in-house counsel would be kept in separate cages. They live in distinct environments and, according to a group of general counsel at the InsideCounsel SuperConference, have very different characteristics.

GCs from Kaplan Higher Education, Navistar, and Johnson Controls got together for a panel about building great in-house teams. It started with some general advice: Ask for writing samples from applicants, don’t hire applicants who use “I” during their interviews, and help to develop your workforce.

“Attorneys don’t tend to be precise and concise when they talk,” said Janice Block of Kaplan Higher Education. She has training sessions to help new hires improve their communication skills, so they can explain what they do for the company if they get stuck in the elevator with the CEO, for example.

Not surprisingly, companies are getting tons of applications for in-house positions these days. “In a market like now, we have lots and lots of people interested in joining the company,” said Jerry Okarma of Johnson Controls, a technology company based in Wisconsin. Attention, diverse candidates: “We have a hard time finding African–Americans in Milwaukee,” said Okarma.

People at the conference told me they’re seeing some amazing résumés cross their desks. People with 20 years of experience are applying for the lowest-level in-house jobs, said one in-houser.

But note well, law firm types: your experience might be a strike against you. The GCs in this session said they look at candidates with in-house experience first, and then to those with law-firm experience. One GC referred to law firms as the “outhouse.” The session included a fair amount of harping about how the animals are trained in the Biglaw outhouse…

“Outhouse practice is a much different practice than in-house practice,” said Curt Kramer of Navistar.

So what’s the matter with the attorneys in the law firm cages? It would be unfair to assign these complaints to specific individuals, but this was the gist of complaints from both the panel and in-house attorneys in the audience:

  • Law firm attorneys have the luxury of sitting in a glass house, thinking about things conceptually, and less practically. In-house, things come at you fast and come at you furiously. Lawyers don’t have that experience in the outhouse.
  • When partners come from the high-powered world of law firms, they come from a world of unlimited resources. They always want to do one more law clerk project and one more cite-check. In-house, you have to be able to work with a budget in mind.
  • One GC described decision-making in-house as “70% certainty and 10-20% gut and you’re off and running.” (Typical lawyer math.) People who have spent a lot of time in law firms aren’t comfortable with just 70% certainty.
  • “You’re going to have to make decisions without perfect information,” said one panelist. Law firm attorneys don’t tend to like that.

One panelist told a story about a hire from a law firm. At a holiday party, this in-house lawyer’s wife complained that the GC was keeping her husband at work until 8 or 9 every night. The GC responded that the guy was doing a job he wasn’t supposed to be doing — he was expending more resources than are expected to be expended in-house.

Another panelist, though, warned that generalizations are dangerous, and lauded firms for the training they offer law school grads. “We couldn’t offer the kind of training they do,” the panelist said.

Of course, the irony here is that lawyers have to start their career somewhere — and that “somewhere” tends to be law firms, as in-house departments don’t usually open their arms to shiny new law grads.

If you’re stuck in a Biglaw cage and want to break out, so you can go play with the happy animals on the in-house side, you have some evolving to do.

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