In-house counsel

Trading BigLaw's late nights and client demands for a more predictable life in a company does have its appeal, but applicants can expect to face hurdles in their pursuit – not least the lack of entry-level job opportunities.

Experience counts... 

IN-HOUSE counsel are hired by a corporation's law department to handle a range of legal issues affecting the company, among them employment, policy, tax and regulatory matters. More prevalently, they play a managerial role, overseeing work that's been outsourced to attorneys at independent firms. Depending on the size of the corporation and the nature of its work, in-house attorneys may be either specialists in a certain field or general commercial practitioners; either way, there tend to be fewer litigators working in-house than transactional attorneys since most companies prefer to outsource litigious matters to lawyers at private firms, particularly at the entry level. “When it comes to litigation, they really want people with experience,” a prominent law school careers dean informs us. “There are many more opportunities for entry-level corporate work in-house.”

Because corporate law departments employ significantly fewer attorneys than BigLaw firms, recent graduates have traditionally been at a disadvantage when it comes to getting hired: as another law school bigwig points out, corporate law departments “generally prefer to hire more experienced attorneys rather than graduates straight out of law school.” Indeed, new in-house counsel positions are usually reserved for seasoned recruits with around five-plus years of legal experience, so opportunities to land an in-house position directly after law school remain scarce.

But there are some opportunities... 

However, things are starting to look up for graduates as corporations look for alternative ways to minimize costs on the legal front. Fed up with the rising cost of outsourcing work to inexperienced junior associates at BigLaw firms – whose average hourly rate is approaching $300 – a growing number of companies are opting for the more cost-effective route of hiring their own lawyers fresh out of law school and training them in-house. As a result, job opportunities for in-house counsel are anticipated to grow over the next few years.

Among the pioneers of this trend are corporate giants such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM (in some years), which run formal in-house training programs with the aim of whipping recent graduates into in-house shape. “Most in-house positions don't orient themselves to entry level, but could be an excellent opportunity when they do,” our source continues. “New lawyers can learn about both business and law, which is great training for a corporate lawyer, and the company gets to mold candidates in a way that allows them to understand the business better and achieve greater value for the company in the long run.

Of the few in-house training programs available to recent graduates, Hewlett-Packard's 1st Year Attorney Graduate Program is arguably the most developed. According to a post by HP's Vice President of Operations on the In-house Access blog, the curriculum incorporates company-specific training, topical bootcamp sessions, skills-based classes on areas like drafting and negotiation, a formal mentoring system and even a sort of reverse secondment wherein some attorneys work for a brief period at a BigLaw firm.

NOT the norm...  

Despite their unanimous praise for the aforementioned training schemes, our interviewees were quick to point out that such programs are hardly the norm. “The reality is that the number of companies recruiting in-house counsel directly out of law school is extremely small, though the number could grow in the coming years,” a careers dean reveals. “By and large, people generally have to go to a big firm for a few years before moving in-house.”

Whether they have the potential to become so in the future is anyone's guess, as the dean points out: “These companies are trying, but no-one's sure whether others will follow suit. It very much depends on things like the economy and whether they can maintain the capacity to bring young people on and train them.” Indeed, considering the volatile state of the economy coupled with the fact that the concept of training lawyers in-house is still relatively nascent, it's difficult to predict whether efforts to increase entry-level opportunities will pan out in the long run.

In-house in the summer 

Fortunately, there appears to be a current spike in interest surrounding in-house careers that suggests the programs are safe for now. “We're seeing more students attaining in-house summer positions,” reveals another top law school careers adviser. “And also more seeking fellowships with university general counsels,” which offer the opportunity to serve for a summer or sometimes an entire year as part of a university's in-house counsel. Some law schools, like SUNY Buffalo, are even offering classes that specifically explore the role of in-house attorneys and the challenges they face. “Direct in-house hiring from law school is still a rare thing, but it would be nice to see opportunities increase to give law students another option.”

Advantages and disadvantages... 

Indeed, while entry-level in-house opportunities are certainly limited, the advantages to a law career outside of a firm are undeniable. Benefits include:

  • Cross-training in several areas of law – unlike BigLaw associates, who typically specialize very early on in their careers, in-house attorneys work as generalists, so they're able to gain experience in many areas of law, including IP, commercial litigation, real estate, M&A and antitrust, to name a few.
  • Improved work/life balance – without the tough billing targets of corporate BigLaw, an in-house career lends itself to a more balanced lifestyle than that of a corporate associate. In-house counsel generally have a better sense of upcoming projects, which lessens the chance of unexpected all-nighters or canceled vacations and allows for a more predictable schedule overall.
  • Increased business involvement – in many ways, the role of an in-house attorney mirrors that of a BigLaw associate: they draft documents, advise their clients and even get involved with pro bono activities; however, they have the added benefit of working in the same environment as their client, so they're able to gain an insider's point of view on how the company operates by attending business meetings and networking events. They're often also presented with unique benefits, such as stock options – all of which extends their role from that of a mere adviser to an actual stakeholder in the business.
  • Unique career opportunities – the most common career path for those looking to advance in the in-house world is to ascend the ranks and become a general counsel, the chief lawyer of a corporation's law department. In-house attorneys also have the option of using their corporate experience as a springboard for pursuing a business-related position such as a corporate strategist or business development director.

However, every rose has its thorn, and in-house work is no exception. Among the disadvantages of pursuing a career in-house are:

  • Lower compensation – while in-house counsel are regarded as well paid, they almost certainly receive less than their BigLaw counterparts. Case in point: Hewlett-Packard pays its first-year attorneys a $115,000 base salary, which is around $45,000 less than most first-year BigLaw associates make. Moreover, in-house attorneys rarely benefit from a lockstep compensation model or the gross salary inflation typical of private firms.
  • Little chance to specialize – because in-house counsel are in charge of tackling all of a company's legal issues, they become well versed in a number of areas rather than experts in a single one. As such, there's little opportunity to specialize in a particular area of interest in the same manner that firm associates can.
  • Limited mobility – an in-house experience can be sufficient preparation for moving into a non-legal career, but many find a transition back into BigLaw more difficult. The option is definitely there, but attorneys usually have to wait until they reach a rather senior position, such as a general counsel, before they become a commodity of interest to a private firm.
  • Small working environment – corporate law departments are significantly smaller than BigLaw firms and thus lack some of the perks of a bigger workplace such as ample support staff and buffers between juniors and seniors. A small workforce also means the turnover is not as high as at a big firm, so competition for landing a position at any level is guaranteed to be fierce – even companies with graduate training programs only take on between three and six new attorneys per year.

Ultimately, an in-house career can be immensely fulfilling, but there are some serious caveats to consider before diving in, particularly at the entry level. Students who decide this career move is for them should try to get as much work experience as possible during law school in order to beef up their resumes – summer internships at big corporations like Procter & Gamble are regularly available and can do you big favors when it comes to honing workplace skills and business know-how. Relevant extracurricular activities, like writing for a business journal, won't go amiss either since they demonstrate a sustained interest in the corporate world.

However, should the elusive entry-level opportunity pass you by, all is not lost – our interviewees strongly discouraged students from discounting the option of working for a few years at a firm before moving in-house. One emphasized: “Most corporations really want people to go out and work at a firm or a government agency before they try to move in-house. A few years down the line, you'll have gained enough experience to actually have substantive value for the company. It often works out best for everybody.”

For more information on going in-house, check out some of the following resources:

  • – legal job directory: listings for in-house counsel positions conveniently sorted by experience level.
  • – award-winning blog run by former general counsel: features advice, information and FAQs about the in-house industry.
  • – official site for the Association of Corporate Counsel: features articles, a job database and other legal resources for private-sector attorneys based on practice area and region.