In-House Counsel

If You’re Looking To Go In-House, Consider Where To Specialize

Judy Sheindlin once told me, “don’t go to law school, the world has enough lawyers.” My response was, “that may be true, but are there enough ‘good’ lawyers.” I posit that the answer is no, there are not enough ‘good’ lawyers. We practice in a field where there is certainly of glut of licensed professionals. And unlike doctors, there is not a constant worldwide need for our services, no matter how self-important we have deluded ourselves to be. I wrote last week about attending the ACC Annual Meeting, and having an enlightened moment of how very much in this field I don’t (can’t) know. Not for want of desire, but because of the evolution of technology, and good old case law.

It made me truly feel for those folks tasked with compliance for their companies….

Compliance in itself is a bit of a misnomer, like “international law.” It can mean something quite specific or nothing at all. Complying with what? HIPAA? Securities Acts? NLRB advisory opinions? All three or none? And don’t get me started on government regulations and treaties and the like. Even a lowly contract lawyer like me is bound by internal policies and outside auditors to comply with rules that can actually cause a P&L statement to behave like a rollercoaster. While not the sexiest job in the department, Compliance can easily have the most time with business unit directors. A compliance attorney’s responsibilities should include risk assessment from 30,000 feet down to minute topics such as handling RIFs and drafting corporate policy to secure those risks. To become proficient in these areas, you need to stay abreast of laws, regulations, and best practices in your industry.

People write to me generally looking for advice on how to go in-house from private practice. If you have been involved in writing white papers on topics relevant to corporate compliance issues, you already have a leg up on other candidates. You would bring law firm experience of advising a broad array of companies on hot button compliance issues. This would be quite valuable to a hiring committee looking for a new hire to handle the compliance and ethics issues for a single entity. It would also make the transition from firm life to in-house that much easier. I have always maintained that it is much simpler, and more fun, to advise a single entity on a broad spectrum of topics, than it is to have to learn a new topic each time a client walks through the door.

Just as it is vogue now for judges to hire clerks with some litigation experience rather than fresh law school grads, it is becoming that much easier to cherry-pick law firm associates with specific skills to bring in-house. I admit that that statement is a double-edged sword, as candidates are routinely expected to be expert in a discrete area of law, moreso than a litigation or corporate “generalist.” Again, the caveat regarding small law departments holds true — a generalist is what is required, but I must say that those jobs are few and far between if the career sites are to be believed.

If you truly want to come in-house, I recommend looking into the areas of compliance and ethics — it is a wonderful way to get your foot into a very small space, and if you ever teach an ethics CLE, you are guaranteed a full-house.

After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at

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