Ask the Experts, In-House Counsel

9 Things That May Surprise You About Going In-House

So let’s assume you know the basics about switching over to become in-house counsel — you don’t bill hours, you’re more of a “business” lawyer, and you become part of a cost center. Instead of having partners who don’t care about you, you’ll have an actual boss who’s supposed to care about you at least a little bit or she’ll look bad. Salaries are probably lower, but it’s all good because you’ve been told that your improved work-life balance will make up for it.

What else is there that you should know before making the move? Well, plenty. Let’s take a look, shall we?

1. To search for in-house jobs, you should use multiple recruiters. Unlike most companies, law firms publicize their open positions everywhere. If you use a half-decent recruiter, she’s bound to have a fairly complete list of law firm jobs in the city you’re interested in. So it’s generally fine to use one or two recruiters to hunt for law firm opportunities.

Whether a company will do a good job of publicizing their job openings is kind of a crapshoot. Some will, but many won’t. Plus companies sometimes have “exclusives” with recruiters, so you won’t find out about a particular job unless you happen to contact that particular recruiter. (What’s up with that — it’s almost like they don’t want you to find out about them?!) Therefore, if you’re looking for an in-house gig, the more recruiters you use, the more you increase your chances at learning about the different job openings out there.

2. Litigation positions are few and far in between. If you’ve just graduated from law school (congratulations!) and your ultimate goal is to work at a mid-sized or large company, forget litigation. Litigators typically comprise only a small fraction of the lawyers at these companies. Think about it — if a large company finds itself in need of a lot of litigators, is that a good sign??

If it’s too late for you because all you’ve been doing is lit work for your entire career, you may have better luck at small companies. Really small ones that have only one or two lawyers. Very small companies will often hire litigators because business people don’t have a clue about how to draft motions or deal with court deadlines. (Thinking about how to spell “subpoena” gives them a headache, so forget about taking care of one.) Find yourself a promising startup like Facebook or Google and you’ll be set! Also, check out companies in certain industries, such as insurance, that handle a lot of complaints/litigation as these will tend to need more litigators.

3. Interviews are different. For law firm jobs, you’ll interview with a bunch of lawyers and all they really care about is that you’re smart and not a jerk. This is because you’ll be doing most of the work on your own, and for the occasions when you’ll have to work with others, they want to make sure that you’ll at least be tolerable.

In-house lawyers spend a lot more time communicating, collaborating, and negotiating with other people. So being smart’s great, but at least as much weight is given to qualities other than your IQ. In your interviews, you may end up being asked more about your soft skills and meeting non-lawyers who help to evaluate your non-legal qualities.

4. You need to know (or be willing to learn) numbers. I wrote about this before, but it was eons ago. So for you newbies and others who may have forgotten, companies are all about their numbers and financials. The earlier you get that, the earlier you’ll truly understand your role in the company and gain the trust of your business colleagues.

5. You may not have an office. Some companies have gone with an open floor plan, which means no one has an office — everyone’s in cubes or just desks all over the floor. A lot tech companies have gone this route, but some non-tech companies do it too. I actually think it would be pretty cool to work in an environment that eschews hierarchy in such a way. But remember, there will be no privacy when you’re on the phone with a recruiter strategizing your next big move.

6. You will do a lot of non-lawyering. At a law firm, you stick to legal issues and legal work, such as drafting contracts and motions. At a company, you’ll spend a good amount of your time lawyering the way you did at a law firm. But you’ll also have plenty to do that isn’t legal work at all. For example, you may end up managing projects or coming up with policies and processes for the company. You may help evaluate new products or review budgets. It’s great because you’ll develop a diverse set of skills useful in many different settings. But in the process, you’ll become less of a pure legal specialist.

7. You may be doing grunt work as a “senior” lawyer. What’s considered “senior” in an in-house environment varies. Depending on the size of the company, you may be viewed as “senior” if you’re several years out of law school or only after a couple of decades out. In any case, don’t expect that as a senior lawyer, your junior schlubs will do all of the menial work that minions are expected to do. Every once in a while (and more often than you’d expect), senior lawyers do end up doing grunt work, such as legal research or drafting a consent.

8. You will address areas of law that you know absolutely nothing about. Often. Companies can’t hire in-house lawyers for every area of specialty that the business may touch on. So even as a basic commercial contracts lawyer, you may be asked about issues relating to social media, employment law, privacy, or a whole host of other areas that you don’t even remember being covered in BarBri. How to deal with what you don’t know? Sometimes you can use outside counsel, but that can be expensive and impractical (the bad ones take forever to get back to you). If your outside counsel budget is only $5, you can try online resources and do some offline research (i.e., other in-house lawyers who will respond to your pitiful cries for help).

9. Being a nerd isn’t necessarily cool anymore. Okay, maybe it never really was all that cool. But as you may have guessed from Mindy Kaling’s Harvard Law commencement address, when you leave a law firm, you’re not in Kansas anymore (“Harvard… Yale… Stanford…. From where I stand from an outsider’s perspective, here’s the truth: you’re all nerds.”). Who are those outsiders? Yep, they’re your colleagues now and they probably make up about 95% or more of the company. But it’s okay — since companies tout teamwork and culture so much, they’ll have no choice but to invite you to the Christmas party.

There are a lot of other items that I originally had on the list above. But then I realized that I should reserve something for future posts. And I was also concerned that if this column got too long, the ATL editors may cu–….

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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