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Career Center: Look Before You Leap — Things to Consider Before Going In-House

Before you make the jump to go in-house, remember that each in-house opportunity is unique and will present different advantages and challenges. As a former in-house attorney who worked for a well-respected investment management company for almost six years, Lateral Link Director Gloria Cannon believes there are several things you should consider in evaluating each in-house opportunity.

They revolve around three primary topics: job responsibilities/duties, compensation, and lifestyle….

First, it is important to understand the company management’s expectations of their in-house legal department. In other words, do the business people consider in-house lawyers to be a necessary evil, or valued and important members of the management team? This viewpoint will be critical in determining the type of matters you will work on and the level of responsibilities you will be given as an in-house attorney. If the company typically retains outside counsel for the high-profile or complicated deals, and relies upon their in-house counsel to handle the more mundane compliance and human resources matters for which it is not cost-effective to use outside counsel, your responsibilities may not be as challenging or interesting as the deals you worked on in private practice. Alternatively, the company may want to give its in-house legal department as much hands-on responsibility on as many deals as possible in order to manage costs and operate within budget constraints. The bottom line is that the role of an in-house attorney depends greatly upon the management and/or General Counsel’s views regarding the expected responsibilities of the in-house legal team. Every company’s approach will be very different, and may also differ with each change in upper management.

In addition, while attorneys in private practice typically specialize in one specific practice area, in-house attorneys generally handle matters in a large variety of practice areas that may differ from their private practice expertise. The specific areas of law will be based upon the company’s industry, and will also include other areas generally handled by most in-house attorneys. For example, I was a bankruptcy/restructuring attorney in private practice. However, as an in-house attorney for an investment management company, I regularly worked on matters involving fund formation, private equity, broker/dealer, securities, tax, ERISA, labor and employment, litigation, bankruptcy, and corporate governance matters. Prior to going in-house, I had virtually no experience in any of these practice areas other than bankruptcy. My experience is not unique in that an in-house attorney typically becomes a “jack of all trades.”

Second, compensation for in-house attorneys is not necessarily comparable to law firm salaries. There is no single standard of compensation for in-house attorneys similar to the lock-step compensation structure found at most law firms. Compensation structures also vary greatly between companies, as well as industries. Thus, it is imperative that you fully understand all aspects of the particular compensation structure you are considering. You will most likely have to negotiate compensation in unfamiliar territory because there will be no standard market salary to use for comparison purposes. In addition, there are very few in-house opportunities with salaries similar to today’s Biglaw salaries. Thus, the likelihood that an in-house opportunity will have the same guaranteed salary as a law firm salary is pretty small, unless you are working for a private equity company, investment bank, or you are the General Counsel. In addition, while public companies may provide appealing stock options, the likelihood of reaping significant benefits depends on many factors out of your control, such as market fluctuations.

Lastly, a general misconception about going in-house is that you will gain a better lifestyle because you will not be working as many hours in order to meet your minimum billing requirement. While your hours as an in-house attorney may be more predictable, the time spent in the office is extremely fast-paced, and often much more frenetic on a consistent and daily basis. One reason for this is that instead of being one of many attorneys staffed on one or two deals, an in-house attorney typically handles as many as 20 to 30 different deals independently and simultaneously. In addition, in-house attorneys typically do not have the assistance of junior associates or a team of paralegals because there is no hierarchy of associates similar to the law firm structure. In addition, there is no longer a buffer (such as a partner) between an in-house attorney and his or her “clients” — i.e., the business people within the company — to control deal flow or allocation of responsibilities. There is also no word processing department, fax department, team of paralegals, or other support staff to assist on deals. As a result, while an in-house attorney’s hours may be more predictable and not require working on weekends, it is typically not the easier, laid-back, stress-free practice that is generally envisioned to be the case for in-house lawyers.

Feel free to contact any of the recruiting professionals at Lateral Link about law firm and in-house job opportunities. For additional career tips, check out the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link.