Billable Hours, General Counsel, In-House Counsel, Job Searches

Inside Straight: The Other Side Of Paradise

I’ve received a couple of e-mails from associates at large firms saying that these folks sit at their desks dreaming about having in-house jobs: One client instead of many competing for your time. More manageable workload. A broader range of work. Less stress. An opportunity to think strategically instead of wallowing in minutiae. No more billable hours. No more time sheets. Bliss!

Please, these correspondents ask, write a column explaining the tribulations of in-house counsel.

This is tricky. First, the in-house life is pretty good. I wouldn’t want to understate the advantages. Second, I don’t hide behind a cloak of anonymity when I publish these columns. If I faced any tribulations (and I don’t, of course), this wouldn’t be a wise forum in which to let loose. Third, my own personal experience doesn’t prove very much generally, and I hear a wide range of varied reactions from others who work in-house.

But I’ll give it a shot….

One client instead of many competing for your time: This is true, but largely irrelevant. The question is not the number of clients competing for your time, but the number of tasks competing for your attention. When I was in private practice, there were times when I would work for years on end for a single client (as a mass tort ramped up, played itself out, and then reached a resolution). Those were by no means recreational times. I had only one client, but I had a great deal of work.

So, too, in-house. Although you’ll theoretically have just one client, you’ll have many internal clients — business folks in different business units, or within a single business unit, clamoring for your time, or your colleagues in the legal department coming to you for help. You’ll still occasionally have fierce, and competing, demands on your time. Having just one “client” doesn’t necessarily change the demand for your services.

More manageable workload: This depends. The head of litigation at a large pharmaceutical company (formerly a partner at an Am Law 50 firm) tells me that he works harder now than he did in private practice. It’s now seven days per week, every week, which is worse than the old life. But another person who recently moved in-house to help manage litigation at a different pharmaceutical company tells me that the whole in-house staff works 8:30 to 5:30, five days per week, period. Overall, the evidence (both anecdotal and the few empirics that I’ve seen) suggests that in-house life is less burdensome (perhaps in part because the crises can be handed to outside lawyers), but, as they say in the advertisements, your experience may vary.

A broader range of work: It depends on your job. A corporate lawyer serving a business unit is likely to become a generalist, being asked to handle whatever legal works needs doing in the business. But an in-house labor lawyer handling EEOC complaints may face a very different environment.

Moreover, some people are suited to handling a broad range of work and others are not. You can’t be a specialist in everything. Folks who take comfort in knowing the details of every aspect of every matter may prefer life as a specialist. Folks who don’t mind being set adrift may prefer working as generalists.

No matter your disposition, an in-house lawyer will live in only one industry, and only one business in that industry. If you want to think broadly about some set of issues or pursue a career in matters that cut across clients, it doesn’t make sense to commit yourself to a single client. (I’m thinking, for example, of someone who wants to specialize in securities litigation. It would be a rare and unfortunate client indeed that had a steady diet of 10b-5 fraud cases brought against it. If you’d like to be a 10b-5 defense lawyer, it’s unlikely that you could pursue that career in-house.)

Less stress: Different stress, anyway. Your clients in the C-suites may be quite demanding. Closing deadlines exist whether you work at a corporation or a law firm. Cases still go to trial and folks still pay close attention to the results. (At corporations where in-house lawyers try cases, the stress of trial is the same as in private practice. At corporations where in-house litigators supervise outside trial counsel, the stress level is quite different.) Moreover, in-house lawyers’ days are occupied by internal meetings and attention to internal projects that outside lawyers are freed from.

An opportunity to think strategically: Again, it depends on your job. Higher-level in-house lawyers are further removed from the day-to-day aspects of particular issues. Those folks may think more strategically about legal issues. The percentage of your work that’s strategic, rather than focused on particular projects, will vary by position. And remember: You can’t do everything. People who are thinking strategically are unlikely to know the details of particular projects. Different people will have different tastes in jobs.

No more billable hours: This will probably be true. I’m told that some corporations do gently monitor lawyer time to allocate legal costs across business units, but I suspect that’s a small minority of companies. For the most part, an in-house job frees you from the burden of billable hours. But that doesn’t mean that corporations are ignoring the value provided by lawyers. People may not be tracking your hours, but they’re surely looking to see if you’re doing something productive. Being productive may be much harder than billing a few hours.

No more time sheets: On this, we can agree.

No more time sheets! Bliss, indeed.

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 (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at

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