Lawyers in government service or private practice who seek a change in purpose or environment often seek to pursue a position within a corporate law department. There are a number of reasons, and exciting opportunities, that might prompt law firm attorneys to consider making a move in-house.
Working in-house is a great way to learn a business, and an industry. Lawyers looking to make this move often do so seeking a greater measure of work-life balance, which can be had in many companies. At least sometimes.
In-house opportunities: key differences
In-house practice and government service differ from law firm practice in a host of ways. One way is the role change, whereby the former private practice lawyer transforms from being an agent to being a principal, i.e., "the client," and the boss of his former peers and competitors.
A second change is going from revenue generating hero — who makes it rain and feeds the firm — to being a fixed cost, part of a larger cost center. A company's law department exists to advance and protect the company's interests and minimize legal risk, not to make money for itself or its lawyers. In that respect, lawyers leaving government service for in-house positions have the least difficulty transitioning, inasmuch as they have not previously had to be concerned with billable hours, or the amount of time spent on a given matter, as lawyers in private practice must. On the other hand, once in a commercial environment -— the law department of a public or private company -— the incentives change, and the former government lawyer, who may have expertise in a specific range of issues, must quicky develop a feel for the realities of a commercial marketplace.
Positions for transactional, regulatory and compliance lawyers and litigators exist at all major and many mid-size and even some smaller companies. Even small companies must comply with industry rules and standards and have daily transactions and experiences that implicate a number of legal areas and issues, such as employment, tax, immigration, contracts, real estate, employee benefits. Also, there will always be transactions involving acquisitions and dispositions of assets, joint ventures, mergers, and of course litigation.
Running a tight ship
Being on the expense side of the ledger, corporate law departments operate on pretty tight budgets, and therefore are staffed leaner and typically work with fewer resources than their peers in private practice, though more than their peers in government service and public interest law. In turn, they must be good project managers and stewards of how, and for what purpose, fees are incurred and funds expended by outside counsel, and also responsible for reviewing and approving counsel's strategy, progress and all work before it is discussed or presented outside the company.
Because of their budgets and lean staffing, corporate law departments typically prefer lawyers with specific relevant experience who can hit the ground running without need for a lot of training or handholding. For higher level positions, such as general counsel or deputy general counsel, etc., companies prefer lawyers who know either the company — from having risen up through it, or gotten to know it up close from having advised, represented, or served alongside it or its peers — or have intimate familiarity with the company's business and industry.
And important internal constituents (i.e., C-suite officers and business unit leaders). They are also often familiar with the range of legal and personnel issues the company encounters, how it handles them, and how to manage it all within budget.
Occasionally, a GC is brought in from outside, usually on the recommendation of the CEO or members of the board. Even still, to retain the confidence of the board, an in-house general counsel must have a working knowledge of and experience with the issues the company faces on a daily basis, be able to manage to budget and be a visible leader within the company.
Vicissitudes of in-house life
Third, every business has its seasons, slow seasons and busy seasons. These seasons ride atop the waves of underlying economic cycles and conditions that affect the wider national and global economies, e.g., the "supply chain." There are both business seasons and economic cycles when things are slow, seasons and cycles when things are steady and seasons and cycles when things are very busy.
When things get very busy, in-house lawyers -— who have actual skin in the game -— can find themselves working side-by-side with, and as hard as, their private firm counterparts, for weeks or months on end, with the outcome having very real consequences to themselves, and their company. If the company has a tough year or bad result, its employees, including its lawyers, will also have a tough year, or bad result.
While working in-house does allow for better work-life balance, any company seeking to maintain or grow its market share must lean into each opportunity. Which can occasionally make a mess of evening or weekend plans, even for in-house counsel. Bad news about something or someone within the company, or its products or services, must be engaged and resolved as soon as possible, no matter the effort required. It falls to the in-house lawyer with responsibility for the business unit or product line at issue to be on top of every aspect of work by colleagues and outside counsel.
On the compensation front, as noted, corporate law departments operate on tight budgets. Those budgets are intended to cover far more than compensation and outside counsel fees. They also cover technology — tools and upgrades, travel and events, office equipment, furniture, talent acquisition and other operating costs.
To incentivize good husbandry of budget allocations, some companies incentivize or challenge their general counsel with bonus money to meet or beat budget. This can lead to cost-cutting measures, and other ways to squeeze the most out of each possible resource before replenishing or supplementing(one reason law departments can be resource constrained).
While in-house compensation is usually better than that for government service or public interest practice, it remains below private practice levels. For the lawyer who seeks a more manageable lifestyle, however, and who is willing to invest a few years to learn a business and industry, an in-house career can be a rewarding mid-point between the relatively spartan but meaningful work of a government lawyer and the swankier life — and longer hours — of the law firm lawyer.