Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: The ABCs of In-House Work

Based on questions that I’ve been getting during the past few months through this blog and elsewhere, I’m realizing that a lot of attorneys and attorneys-to-be who don’t know about some of the very basic characteristics of in-house legal work. Stuff that I forget isn’t necessarily obvious until after some time has passed (like how only after you’ve graduated from law school do you realize that in order to make a profit off your casebooks, you need to sell them before the next edition has been released — so basically within 20 minutes of purchasing them).

Instead of having to continue explaining the fundamentals of in-house work again and again to each of these people individually, I realized I can make use of this newfangled innovation called le blog for summarizing some of that basic information. That way, when people ask me all of those questions, I can just refer them here. It only took me ten months to figure this out. I am so SMRT.

So off we go. First, in-house hours and pay….

The downside is that in-house lawyers generally make less money than law firm lawyers. There are exceptions, e.g., if you work for a small firm and move to a big company, switch cities, get lucky with stock options, yada, yada, yada….But most of the time you’re going to see a pretty big pay cut. I don’t mean big like $20k. I mean big like another person’s entire salary (or two in this job market). If you’re about a mid-level associate in midlaw/biglaw and moving over to a mid-/big-sized company, you could see a pay drop of about $50k-$100k.

The upside is that in-house hours are typically better than law firm hours, particularly Biglaw hours. Whether it’s 9-5, 9-7, etc. varies. But unless you’re way up the food chain, you’re usually not slaving away on evenings and weekends, and you have time to focus on other important tasks, such as catching up on George Takei’s Facebook updates. Or, if you’ve made some silly mistakes, like having a kid (or 20), I suppose you could spend what people like to call “quality time with family.” Many companies seem to actually encourage this sort of deviant, clichéd behavior.

What kind of work do in-house lawyers do? A lot of inquiring minds are surprised to find out that very few of us do litigation. Litigators probably comprise about 10-15% of in-house positions, except at very small companies. Companies in certain industries, such as insurance, may hire more litigators, but they still won’t make up the majority of a legal department. So if you’re a litigator who’s looking to eventually go in-house, expect to deal with many times the competition that your transactional buddy in the office next door will face.

The rest of us in-house lawyers work on everything there is outside of litigation, including lots and lots of transactional work. The type of transactional work varies and is in nearly every area you can think of — intellectual property, licensing, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, employment, regulatory filings, etc., just to name a few. Some transactional lawyers specialize in particular areas of law and others are generalists. Many companies have both.

Some other broad categories of in-house work? Many legal teams are responsible for compliance matters, such as privacy, corporate policies and procedures, governmental regulations, etc. Sometimes there’s a separate compliance department and other times the legal group is it. In-house lawyers also spend a great deal of time advising clients when day-to-day issues and questions arise or when business people have things they like to call “ideas.” We’re also tasked with managing outside counsel, but it’s not usually a large chunk of our job, contrary to what some people may think.

Finally, another very basic and important characteristic of in-house work is the structure. You move from being a part of the snooty group at the firm that rakes in the money to a cost center that spends half its time defending its miniscule budget. And, there’s an actual reporting structure — you report directly to a manager and you may have your own minions, I mean people, to manage. There’s no “up or out” structure. In fact, moving up can be really hard if no one above you is going anywhere. You’re glad when your boss gets promoted because it means there’s now room above your position for you to move into, I mean, because you’re really happy for him.

So there you have it — the basics of in-house lawyering, all summarized in one blog out of the goodness of my heart (and the annoyances of my brain in having to repeat the same info over and over again — I mean, I must have been asked about this stuff at least twice). Next week’s installment will continue with the usual, more sophisticated and finer nuances of in-house work, like how watching game shows can help you in meetings.

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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