I often sit across from candidates who are contemplating a move from private practice to an in-house corporate counsel position. This career move is not always an easy transition and once in-house, many lawyers find that they have to make a number of adjustments.
Before taking the plunge from private practice to an in-house role, here are some of the key practical realities you should consider:
Prioritization: Being an in-house lawyer does not mean that you just have one client. Your client can be anyone from the organization, including the CEO, CFO, sales/marketing, product development, technical support, finance or accounting personnel. The plethora of demands requires a lawyer who can effectively prioritize the competing interests of the various internal clients. A solution to this challenge is to develop relationships with the people in the organization and clarify their expectations from the start. Ask the internal client what they want to ultimately accomplish. In some cases, what they have requested may not be the most efficient or effective route and the matter may not be as urgent as it initially appears. By clarifying the issues, corporate counsel can then focus on the most urgent matters at hand.
Fast and Practical Answers: Your clients’ questions are often as varied as the people requesting the answers and, as a result, in-house counsel must be a “jack of all trades”. Your deliverable is no longer a memo on the law. In-house clients want the bottom line; short, simple, fast and no “legalese”. Your clients want to know “how they can”, rather than “why they can’t”!
Accessibility: In-house lawyers are extremely accessible to their clients. Your client is now in the same office and may be knocking on your door at any time. You can no longer hide behind your computer and need to be prepared for instances where you may be put on the spot to answer questions without advanced notice.
Managing Outside Costs: Once in-house, a lawyer is usually relieved to find that they are no longer required to docket their billable hours. They do, however, need to learn how to control external costs. Many lawyers find it difficult to question outside counsel on the same type of legal fees that s/he once charged in private practice. An effective way to maintain a cost-effective outsourcing budget is to set the parameters at the start with outside counsel. Ask for a ball park figure for the work required and to be notified if it will be more than initially estimated. Monthly billing is also a useful method to avoid unexpected legal costs.
Understanding the Big Picture: In many cases, as a junior lawyer in a major law firm you are somewhat insulated. The partners are often dealing with the client directly and handling the deal structure. Only once the deal is structured will a junior get involved by preparing the legal documentation. As a junior in-house lawyer, you are now often working directly with the CEO and other business representatives and thus an integral part of the team. You now need to know how to structure the entire deal and therefore need to understand the big picture, including the financial, tax and technological implications. Many lawyers find themselves struggling with these issues in which they have no training or background.
After moving in-house, some lawyers may start to second guess their abilities once they are out of their comfort zone and without the safety net of an abundance of associates and partners. The best advice is not to panic; instead, embrace the opportunity to take on a more strategic role and be a part of the management team.
Making the move from private practice to an in-house role can lead to a rewarding and exciting career. However, knowing and understanding the expectations will make the transition a smoother one.
Carrie is the President and founder of The Heller Group. She specializes in the recruitment and placement of partners and senior lawyers into major law firms, as well as General Counsel and senior counsel roles for national and multi-national corporations. In her spare time, Carrie enjoys travelling, yoga, trying out new recipes, and spending time with her husband and two young daughters.
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