Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Inside Straight: The Absence Of Griping

At big law firms, people gripe. It’s a way of life.

Junior associates gripe about being condemned to do scutwork. Senior associates complain about friends having been screwed out of partnership. Junior partners bellyache about not being invited to participate in client pitches. Senior partners grouse about their peers, who don’t work very hard and aren’t very good lawyers, being paid too much. The law firm’s “owners” — the half-dozen guys who actually run the joint — moan that all those other lawyers should quit their whining and get back to work. And everyone kvetches about opposing counsel, unreasonable clients, and working too many hours.

(You’ll note that nobody b*tches about anything. I offer the preceding paragraph as evidence that we needn’t degrade the level of discourse to express ourselves.)

At corporations, this just doesn’t happen. People occasionally whine, of course — there’s a reason why they call it “work” — but griping is not the order of the day, every day, year in and year out.

Why not?

Perhaps it’s the size of our teams. If a typical in-house lawyer is one of six or eight people reporting to a single boss, it’s dangerous to carp too much. We’re a small group, and word could get around.

Perhaps it’s our longevity as a team. At law firms, cases (and transactions) come and go. Lawyers work with each other intensely for a few months (or, for big litigation matters, years) and then move on to work in other teams. At a corporation, we’re bound together for a long, long time. A small band of in-house litigators will be handling all of the company’s litigation until people change jobs, leave the company, or die. The same is true for in-house M&A lawyers. If you’re likely to be working with the same people for many years, complaining can be dangerous business.

Perhaps it’s the nature of our adversaries. At a law firm, high-testosterone lawyers who hammer the other side on a deal or a case may (unfortunately) be respected for their antics. In a corporate environment, people on the other side of a transaction may well be our customers; it pays to be civilized to them. If you badmouth the other side of a deal to your client in sales, the client may blame a lost opportunity on your bad attitude. Depending on a corporation’s industry, even the corporation’s opponents in litigation may be customers or potential customers.

Perhaps attitudes are simply perceived differently at corporations and law firms. Many people choose to be lawyers because they like arguing and make their career choices to match their personalities. People choose to work at corporations for many different reasons, but not often because they view their quarrelsome nature as a professional attribute.

Perhaps our jobs are better. If we have in fact reached nirvana by moving in-house, then we naturally wouldn’t complain as much as those sorry others in our profession who remain trapped inside the barbed wire at law firms.

Or perhaps it’s just me. I moved up through the ranks of a big law firm, so I saw (and heard) it all over the course of a couple of decades. I entered in-house life relatively late in the game, and not at a junior level, so perhaps I’ve simply lacked exposure to the realities of in-house life, or maybe I’m hopelessly out of the loop.

But, if fellow biglaw alums who’ve moved in-house share my perception, I’ll be curious to hear their hypotheses as to why in-house lawyers grumble less than their outside peers.


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 inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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