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Moonlighting: Should Companies Hire Attorneys Straight Out Of Law School?

Companies don’t typically hire law students. The greatest concern that companies have about hiring law school graduates is training. In-house legal departments don’t want to have train new lawyers, and prefer that law firms take the effort to pass on the needed skills before we go ahead and pinch some of their best associates.

That said, there are certainly several examples of companies that have successfully decided that it’s a good thing to hire counsel who know virtually nothing about practicing law. In this post, I’ll examine some of the pros and cons of hiring newbie lawyers versus law firm trained, not-so-newbies for entry-level in-house positions.

For the first issue at hand, what is this magical “training” that law firms are so good at providing…?

This training involves learning corporate law, drafting and negotiating legal documents, and executing deals and transactions. As with most of my posts, note that we’re only talking about transactional work here. For convenience, let’s call all of these skills “Corporate Law Training.” (Capitalized terms used and not defined herein shall have no meaning whatsoever.)

Even with all of that glorious Corporate Law Training, however, it’s not as if law firm lawyers can join a company and run with the work they’re given with little supervision. First of all, it’s unlikely that all (or even most) of their Corporate Law Training will be directly transferable to their in-house tasks. The more likely scenario is there will likely be plenty of law, documents, and transactions that they’ve never dealt with at the law firm. Plus, there will be other aspects of their in-house work — products, services, policies, game rooms, etc., that they’ll spend a significant amount of time getting familiar with. Let’s call all of this additional training “In-House Training.”

Also, despite whatever information you may try to find out during the interview process about law firm attorneys’ skills and experience, there’s no way to truly know how competent they are until you’ve actually worked with them. After all, it’s only about 30 minutes per interviewer, and we’re all pretty much asking the same brilliant questions like, “So… what’s your greatest weakness?” (It’s amazing how many perfectionists out there are so hard on themselves.) And unlike a lot of interviews for business positions, there’s no “skills test” during the hiring process. Therefore, after law firm attorneys are hired, in-house managers still spend a significant amount of time during the first several months overseeing their work, especially for more junior attorneys, to get a sense of their areas of incompetency.

One benefit that’s available with law students and not with law firm attorneys is that you can actually take them for a test run as summer interns. Although they won’t have a lot of legal knowledge (unless they’ve previously worked elsewhere as a paralegal or intern), you can get a pretty good sense during the summer of their analytical skills, attention to detail, and general potential (like whether they’ll steal your job someday). The cons of this approach are that you’ll need to take efforts to train them during the summer, and then wait at least an entire year before they can start working full time. Although you could, of course, consider hiring them part-time during the school year.

And once law students start working, you’ll need to provide both In-House Training, as well as some of the Corporate Law Training that’s applicable to your business. However, you’ll be paying for the In-House Training at a much lower rate than you’d pay for a law firm hire, since the newbie’s salary will be much lower. On the other hand, you will have a cost for the Corporate Law Training hours that would include both the newbie’s hours and the manager’s hours. (By the way, I’m not implying that the attorneys would bill these hours — it’s just a part of a return on investment analysis.)

There are some ways to that companies can spend less time in training law school hires. You could do like Hewlett-Packard and Pfizer and create specialized, efficient programs for legal rookies. However, this option is only really practical for larger companies that have the resources and sufficient numbers of new hires to justify specialized programs for them.

Smaller companies may be able to pull together other training for kids who are just recovering from Barzam trauma. As always, there are online resources. For example, the Association of Corporate Counsel and Practical Law Company have lots of materials on substantive law, practice issues, etc., including information specifically for new in-house lawyers.

For legal drafting training and tips, Ken Adams’s current and prior blog sites are very useful. There are other individuals who provide drafting training for lawyers as well, such as Marilyn Bush Leleiko. Marilyn offers in-person training and also posts great tips on her website. Smaller companies can consider collaborating together to share the fees for these kinds of services. These days, many law firms are also happy to offer in-house counsel training in areas of substantive law, as well as in drafting.

Besides the fact that you can “try them out” during the summer, a couple of other advantages of hiring law school grads are that they’re less expensive (an obvious benefit in this economy), and they’ll be less likely to be set in their ways (or god forbid, cocky) about their Corporate Law Training. On that last point, there’s sometimes “untraining” necessary for lawyers who’ve worked at firms and are used to drafting documents a certain way. Or they may have a tendency to focus on theoretical legal issues at the expense of practical applications and risk analyses.

There are also other disadvantages of hiring lawyers who haven’t been trained at a firm. For some reason, business clients aren’t too thrilled about having lawyers who don’t know anything about counseling them on, you know, the law. Go figure. Also, lawyers who haven’t worked in a law firm setting themselves will likely find it more difficult to manage outside counsel (e.g., to have an idea of what a reasonable number of hours billed to a matter is, or whether 650 hours for a confidentiality agreement may be a wee bit much). Finally, law firm attorneys usually work with many different clients and therefore have a much more broad-based view of how legal issues have been dealt with at other companies.

Filling entry-level positions with law students versus law firm lawyers is worth considering, understanding that every company’s hiring needs are different. There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages either way. Oh, did I mention that law students also make better minions? (And, seriously, who doesn’t want a minion?) Are there any other pros and to consider in hiring law students for in-house positions? Email me at or comment below.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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