Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Litigators

Inside Straight: Where Law Is Not King

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

There are many advantages to working for a corporation instead of a law firm: You learn a business from the inside out; work regularly with business people, rather than other lawyers; are spared the daily insanity of quibbling with opposing counsel about whether the deposition will be taken in Houston or Denver; can often avoid blowing up the week between Christmas and New Year’s because some clown dropped a TRO on your client on December 24; and on and on.

But it’s much too easy to write about that. So I’ve explored the other side of the coin: I’ve asked several litigators who recently went in-house what they missed most about private practice. I generally heard two things in response:

First: Many litigators enjoy litigating. A common refrain is this: “I miss doing it!”

“I can’t believe I have to sit in the back of a courtroom and watch other guys give opening statements. And over lunch, I’m just kibitzing from the sidelines, hoping the trial lawyers listen to my suggestions.”

Or, “There’s a huge difference between flying to Chicago to argue in the Seventh Circuit and flying to Chicago to watch your outside counsel argue. One is a real event. For the other, you call an old friend to set up dinner the night before, watch the end of Monday Night Football in your hotel room, and then roll down to the courthouse in the morning. Your pulse rate never goes above 60.”

If you love the spotlight (as many litigators do), you may not like stepping out of it. You may miss doing it….

Second, some people say that they miss working at a place where law is king.

At a law firm, law is king.

Raise a legal issue, and everyone’s interested. People mull it over in their offices or chat about it over lunch. People may do a little on-line research (on their own time, out of interest) to get a better grasp of the issue. The firm celebrates favorable jury verdicts on its website and in its press releases and promotional materials. The managing partner sends around memos bestowing kudos on the champions.

At a corporation, law is not king. Or queen, or jack, or ten. Law is a department.

At a law firm, when the court grants your motion to exclude the other side’s expert, you give each other high fives. You go out for a celebratory beer.

In a corporate law department, when your client wins a jury trial, the folks in the law department congratulate each other for having picked the right case to try and having staffed it correctly. But then you report the victory to the business unit, and you may hear, “That’s nice. But our stock price is down today.”

It’s all a matter of emphasis.

Corporations celebrate things, but often not the same things that law firms celebrate.

People go to law school for different reasons. Some think it’s a route to a good career. Some think it’s the best alternative, because they can’t stand the sight of blood and don’t want to be unemployed PhD’s. Some figure they’ll put a law degree to use in some non-legal way. But some go to law school out of genuine interest and may well prefer to work in an environment in which law is king.

So do a little soul-searching before moving in-house. Think about your likes and dislikes. And bear in mind that, if you make the switch, you may miss two things about your old life: Doing it, and working in a place where law is king.

Earlier: Prior installments of Inside Straight

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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