BEING AN IN-HOUSE ATTORNEY
Traditionally, a number of years of work experience are required to become an in-house attorney. Being a corporate generalist is thought to be the best training for going in-house. Patent lawyers can also move in-house with relative ease. But litigators usually have the hardest time making the transition since many law departments outsource their litigation work. If you are a litigator or have a narrow area of specialization, larger law departments will be your best prospects. Having a mix of corporate and employment law experience is very useful since every corporation needs this expertise. However, if you build good relationships with your clients as outside counsel, then there is ample precedent for non-corporate attorneys assuming the role of GC at a former client company.
If you are thinking about an in-house career, the best thing you can do is to find several in-house lawyers who are willing to speak with you on an informational basis. Ask them what they like about being in-house, and find out how they spend their days. Ask what things they miss about practicing in a law firm, and get their advice on where you might best fit in a corporate environment.
BEST WAY TO FIND AN IN-HOUSE JOB
If you are a mid-level corporate associate at a top firm, headhunters will probably call you about in-house opportunities. However, if you do not fall into this narrow demographic, headhunters are not as responsive. While it is a good idea to let multiple recruiters know that you are interested in hearing about corporate opportunities, networking is the most effective way to expand your in-house options, This will help you gain access to the inchoate job market -- remember: many jobs are never advertised!
Many lawyers leaving private practice can expect to take a pay cut when they move in-house. In a corporation, it is not uncommon for the highest-paid lawyers to receive a high percentage of incentive-based compensation. In more established companies, attorneys might receive a year-end bonus of 30% or more. In earlier-stage companies, attorneys might expect to receive a significant grant of stock options in lieu of a large base. Factors which help determine what a company might pay include industry, stage, whether the GC is part of senior management, the number of employees, number of facilities, and volume of sales. For example, expect higher salaries in the financial-services industry and lower salaries in retail.
Lawyers often say that they are interested in going in-house for lifestyle reasons. Although it may be true that in-house lawyers are better able to predict workflow, there is substantial evidence that many in-house lawyers work just as hard on the inside as they did at a law firm. This is not uniformly the case; and certainly, some in-house lawyers do have it a lot better. The principal difference is that in-house lawyers are more insulated from last minutes "vacation-wrecking" or "weekend-wrecking" deals.
Opportunities for advancement are limited for most in-house attorneys. Many law departments have a flat reporting structure with the entire legal staff reporting to the GC. As a result, career advancement in a corporation probably means making a lateral move. In large law departments, there are more opportunities for promotions; but many in-house law departments are small. Some lawyers use an in-house job as a launching pad for moving into a non-legal position.
Timing an in-house move depends largely on your career objectives. If your desire to go in-house is driven by an interest in switching to the business side of a company, you are probably better off making your move as a relatively junior associate. Once you have been practicing for a while, it will be more difficult, though not impossible, for business people to see you as anything other than a lawyer. If your objective is to become a GC, staying at a law firm until you are at least a senior associate is often sensible.
In-house lawyers are happy to be rid of the pressure of the billable hour and the push to build a book of business. They also enjoy delegating the nitty-gritty drafting requirements to outside counsel when the company is involved in a large deal. Satisfied in-house lawyers indicate that they like having the chance to really get to know and live with one client over time. They like being part of the team, and they like having the chance to get more involved in the business side of a company.
When you leave a law firm, it is probably that you will have less opportunity to do cutting-edge legal work. You will probably also have less opportunity for training as a lawyer and less opportunity to interact with legal professionals. If you work in a large law firm and you are accustomed to delegating work to paralegals and secretaries, in an in-house environment, you many find that you have less opportunity to leverage your time by using paralegals.
One of the biggest disadvantages of going in-house is that it is riskier. In a law firm, you generally work for multiple clients. If you work for a corporation and the company is sold or goes out of business, you'll need to find a new job.
Another major factor to consider is the trifocal issue of status, prestige, and autonomy. Unless you are generating income for a company through licensing deals, etc., you are going to be considered part of the cost structure rather than part of the income side of the ledger. This often comes with a drop in status or prestige.
Finally, in a corporation, it may be harder to hide from a boss you do not like. In a law firm, many associates report to multiple partners. If there is someone you do not get along with, it may be possible to avoid that individual. There is less space to hide when you report to one or two people in senior management.
Association of Corporate Counsel: The world's largest organization serving the professional and business interests of attorneys who practice in the legal departments of corporations, associations, and other private-sector organizations around the globe.