Biglaw, Billable Hours, In-House Counsel

Inside Straight: Vive La Différence

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s new column for in-house counsel.

When I moved in-house ten months ago, my phone started to ring off the hook — and not just from folks I hadn’t spoken to in years, who thought that I’d now be itching to retain them. I also got a few calls from people who were simply curious about the difference between working in-house and working at a law firm.

One of the differences is self-evident: You arrive at work on your first day at a corporation, and you devote that day entirely to ministerial crap. You spend an hour completing immigration forms, spend an hour having your photograph taken for various ID cards, fill out your health insurance and retirement benefit forms, create passwords for a dizzying array of computer databases, set up your computer to receive corporate training, and then realize that everyone is heading home.

Ouch! Another wasted day! You didn’t do a minute of billable work. You might as well have been on vacation today, because you did nothing that could legitimately be charged to a client.

But wait….

For the first workday since, in my case, October 15, 1984, you did not have to fill out a timesheet. For reasons not entirely clear, today would not be recorded as a vacation day. This day somehow, miraculously, counted as work.

No time sheets. Thank the lawdy.

There are other differences between private practice and in-house life that are less self-evident. These include, for example, your level of concern for the work quality of the folks who are helping you.

At a law firm, senior lawyers give junior lawyers a chance — or two, or maybe three — to prove themselves. If the junior lawyer’s work is top-notch, then you clutch that lawyer to your breast, never letting him or her escape. If the junior lawyer’s work is okay, you work with the lawyer a couple of times, to see if he or she is educable. If the junior lawyer’s work is bad, you cut that person out of your life.

In the law firm environment, cutting a person out of your life is generally easy and painless. You simply don’t ask the junior person to help you any more.

Voilà! No muss, no fuss, and no more crappy drafts!

And the junior lawyer pays only the gentlest price for this. The lawyer is not fired. The lawyer simply goes on to work with other people. Some of those other people may actually approve of the lawyer’s work. If so, a decade from now, you may be surprised to see your junior colleague join you as a partner.

Even if the junior lawyer impresses no one, the firm probably won’t decide to fire the lawyer for years. Your decision not to work with the junior lawyer had essentially no ramifications.

Not so in-house.

At a corporation, you’ll have some small and immutable number of “direct reports,” who make your department run, and for whom you are responsible. If you’re unhappy with the quality of work performed by someone in your team, you can’t easily excise that person from your life. For the most part, you have two choices: Train the person, or “transition him out” (which is corporate-speak for “fire him”).

And firing a person, unlike choosing not to work with a person (and thus simply foisting him off on your partners), is a big deal; only the most heartless would fire someone casually. The realities of corporate life force you to work with your folks pretty closely.

I’m not passing judgment here. Maybe the law firm approach is too callous; maybe the in-house approach is too forgiving; maybe I’m missing the ball completely.

But if you’re thinking about moving to an in-house position, you should be aware that the structure of your professional life — whom you support, and who supports you — can be far more rigid in a corporation than it is in a large professional partnership.

Vive la différence.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.

You can reach him by email at

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