The 7 Myths of Being In-House Counsel

The current supply of available in-house counsel positions is dwarfed by the number lawyers that would like to get an in-house counsel position.  When I was a General Counsel, we would receive over 100 applicants for an open in-house counsel position in less than 2 days.  The applicant pool ranged from partners at law firms to recent law school graduates.  It seemed to me at that time and now, that many lawyers have the idea that going in-house will solve many of their problems and will make their work life infinitely better.  I had some of those thoughts too but I think that for some the old saying of “careful what you wish for” applies.  

I can remember back to when I was interviewing for my first in-house counsel position.  I thought, “this will be great, I can just be a lawyer, the pace of work will slow down a bit, I don’t have to market myself, and since everyone works for the client we’ll all be on the same team.”  And while there are many great things about going in-house, there are seven myths that you should be aware of before submitting that application for an open in-house position.     

  1. It’s Easier/Less Work - This may have been the case in the 1980s or 1990s but the work demands placed on members of law departments can be grueling.  Especially, for those companies with global operations where complex legal issues surface every day and require the legal team to think and act globally.  At times, it can feel like you’re working 20 hours every day with early morning and late night phone calls to other parts of the world regularly scheduled.  Further, you are often handling many other non-legal matters.  Much more so than at a law firm.

  2. Don’t Have to Market Yourself - The law department is always justifying its existence.  An in-house lawyer has gone from revenue generator at a law firm to viewed as a cost center at a company.  If your internal clients don’t enjoy working with you they can lobby for you to be replaced or your role outsourced.  Worse, they can choose to just go directly to outside counsel and cut you out completely.  While that may be against company or law department policy, it can happen and sends a clear message about whether your services are valued or worse, even needed.  So in-house lawyers do have to market themselves but not in the wine and dine sense.    
  3. More Job Security - Your company can be acquired at any time and as much as lawyers like to view themselves as very important, in-house lawyers are rarely viewed as “key” to an acquisition.  In-house lawyers are more often part of the casualties of acquisitions.  During the Great Recession, many companies laid off in-house lawyers as they cut costs and tried to retain revenue producers.  Costs and cost centers were slashed.  If you end up being one of those lawyers let go by a company for any reason, it’s challenging to get hired by a law firm now as you likely have no clients and few, if any, client prospects.  So going in-house can be putting all of your eggs in one basket.  

  4. You Won’t Have Difficult Clients - You may think your law firm’s clients set unrealistic and arbitrary deadlines.  Well that gets ratcheted up several notches when you’re an employee of the client.  Your clients are either in the offices next to you or right down the hall.  There is no separation and they can pop into your office at any moment or, if they don’t like your guidance, they can call you on the carpet in front of senior management to debate the merits of your guidance (or whether any of them even like your guidance regardless of the merits).  And while your guidance may be the exact right legal advice, it may still not be viewed as the best path for the company and “too legally”.  Legal doesn’t run the business and you’ll be reminded of that.   As in-house counsel and an employee of the company, you can walk the fine line of keeping your internal clients happy and giving them advice that they don’t want to hear or won’t act on.  It’s good training for being a diplomat.  

  5. Less Pressure - The pressures as an in-house lawyer mostly center around your schedule and that you frequently have little time to do actual work to meet the tight deadlines that have been set.  Most of your days are spent in internal meetings upon meetings. Leaving a few 15 to 20 minute windows available to do any work or catch up on email.  You can also be bombarded with texts for urgent matters or perceived urgent matters during the gauntlet of meetings. And, depending on your role, you also are often working cross-functionally (working with the tax, accounting, human resources, treasury, and insurance departments for example) and have to coordinate your piece of the work with representatives from those departments, sometimes also working across time zones, in order to provide one comprehensive report to executives.  Your work product often depends on many others to pull their weight.  And depending on how many executive layers that report goes up and through there could be several reviews that result in multiple drafts and rework.  You're also often waiting/hoping/praying that your outside legal service providers will meet the deadlines you've promised internally.  If those deadlines aren't met with a usable work product, it's your credibility internally that takes a big hit you don't get to blame the outside legal service provider because you're the one that picked them (even if you didn't).

  6. I Can Just Be a Lawyer - The modern law department requires its members to be more than lawyers.  You must understand business, have financial acumen, understand metrics and data analytics, and technology.  You may find yourself on several law department committees or company-wide committees.  That work must also get done and those committees tend to add many additional meetings to your calendar.  At a company, how you get your work done is oftentimes more important (how well you play with others) than the results.  This is in stark contrast to a law firm and often a key component in annual reviews and ability to be promoted.  Many of the best technical lawyers in a law department are unable to move up the ranks because their interpersonal skills are lacking and ability to work within a team are lacking.  Lastly, because you’re a cost center - you’ll more than likely not have any administrative support so you’ll also be doing a lot of administrative tasks.

  7. There Won’t Be Any Politics - Wow was I wrong about this one.  Law departments can have this internal “Hunger Games”/”Cold War” thing going on where everyone behind closed doors is jockeying to move up and nearly everyone wants to be a General Counsel.  The cold hard truth is there rarely is an opportunity to move up or move into a new role when you take an in-house counsel position.  You are more than likely going to be in that role for as long as you stay with the company.  However, in certain departments that won’t stop others from trying to move up and into other roles.  Sometimes, I think that can be attributed to watching your colleagues in other departments move up and out into new and more challenging roles and you “stay behind.”  

Let us know any other myths in the comments.