The Mentorist

In-House Lowdown: Still a Lawyer, but the Game Has Changed


‘In-House Lowdown’ is a series of blog posts designed to help lawyers navigate the in-house world. Its observations are based on my 20+ years as a General Counsel, spent managing legal teams and herding assorted breeds of corporate cats.

Law firm life got you miserable?  Plan on moving in-house to elevate your mood?

That might be the perfect remedy.  Or it might bring you equal levels of misery (just in new and different ways).  You’ll have a better shot at predicting the likely outcome if — before making your move — you understand the fundamental differences between in-house life and private practice.

To be good at their jobs, in-house lawyers need to develop a new set of muscles:  Some of the skills and behaviors that have earned them rich rewards in their law firm are going to be irrelevant –- or even destructive –- inside a company’s legal team.

I’ll have more to say on muscle development in future posts.  For now, let’s shine a light on some of the basic ways that practicing law inside a company differs from working in a firm.  Here are five:

  1. You are no longer one of ‘the assets’

    Lawyers in private practice are ‘profit centers’:  Their services are what their firm is selling and how it makes its money.  This status means they’re catered to (at least, if they’re partners).

    By contrast, in-house lawyers are ‘cost centers’:  Their company doesn’t sell their services and includes them with its other GS&A costs.  In short, they’re a drain on profits.

    Being a ‘non-asset’ has its positive side (good-bye, time sheets), as well as its challenges (those who bring in the bucks get more time in front of the microphone).  Be prepared to have to figure out how to ‘get heard.’

  2. You can’t ‘get out of Dodge’

    Although private practice lawyers get intensely involved in preparing for their client’s ‘big event’ (a trial or acquisition, let’s say), they ‘ride out of town’ once the event is over.

    In-house lawyers don’t have that luxury.  Rather, they’re left to manage the aftermath and live with the decisions they’ve helped to make.  Yes, it can be fascinating to witness how the event plays out over time.  (If it happens to be an acquisition, you’ll quickly understand why 90% of them fail.)

    However, the legal work involved post-event is rarely as exciting as the euphoria of the event itself. (Can you spell ‘scut work’?) And, often, there’s no one on the legal team to do it but you.

    Moreover, your ‘business guys’ quickly lose interest in doing what’s required to ‘live under the contract’ (or, say, court order):  You have to figure out how to convince them that –- even though it takes time away from ‘selling stuff’ –- compliance really does matter.

  3. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come

    When a potential client walks into a law firm, she already knows she needs legal help.  That’s why she’s there.  In other words, she’s a sophisticated consumer.

    By contrast, it’s not unusual for a company to teem with business people who know nothing about what lawyers really do, let alone when they need one.

    An in-house lawyer spends a lot of his time on missionary work:  spreading the good word about legal team services, in hopes that the natives ‘get religion’ and regularly seek out the team’s advice.

    If you don’t enjoy dumbing down complex legal notions to convince ‘unsophisticates’ of your worth, you may not have the temperament for in-house work.

  4. You need to know and love –- wait, make that LOVE –- business

    When you’re an in-house lawyer, you play a supporting role.  And the thing you’re supporting is ‘The Business.’  You need to quickly learn whatin-house legal skills business goals your company is trying to accomplish –- and how.  You also need to learn what factors (or, in business-speak, ‘levers’) can influence how much money your company will make.

    But, your knowledge can’t stop there:  You also need to learn what’s going on generally in the industry your company operates in –- and what’s looming on the competitive horizon.

    To be a good in-house lawyer, this stuff must turn you on –- i.e., you have to love showing business people how your legal advice is going to help them reach their business targets (while, at the same time, keeping everyone out of prison).

    If you don’t ‘walk and talk’ business, the advice you give will be ignored –- or, worse, you won’t even be asked to give it.

  5. You need a high tolerance for ambiguity

    In-house lawyers are, daily, making decisions based on incomplete information.  The pace is rapid-fire (at least, in the industries I’ve been in), and ‘I’ll-get-back-to-you-on-that’ is not a widely accepted (or, sometimes, even possible) answer.  You live in an atmosphere of urgency.

    Of course, private practice lawyers can be called upon to make these same sorts of on-the-spot decisions.  But it tends to happen less often.  (Probably because every phone call to a firm costs some serious money, while in-house lawyers are seen as ‘free’….)  When you’re in-house, you’re on the frontlines of decision-making and routinely get hit with a fusillade of issues that need answers now.

‘Scared straight’ yet?  Let me assure you that very few lawyers are a perfect fit for in-house work the day they walk through a company’s door.

However, those who end up flourishing ‘on the inside’ do share some common traits:  They have open personalities, love the challenge of thinking on their feet and understand when (and when not) to push back.  A dose of good mentoring helps too.

If those qualities describe you, then, by all means, go for that in-house job.  You’re in for a fascinating ride.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

2 thoughts on “In-House Lowdown: Still a Lawyer, but the Game Has Changed

  1. JEO –

    Outstanding piece. As usual, extraordinarily well written and very thorough and thoughtful.

    I can’t recall if you have written a piece on “how to think, speak and write like a business person in delivering legal services,” but if not, that would be a terrific subject to explore, given that you essentially have written the book on it (at the very least, you are the reigning expert on the topic). Great stuff!



  2. Kyle–

    Thanks for the kind words! I’ve got that “business-speak” piece in the works — coming soon to a newsstand near you. Keep the ideas coming, yes? I want these outburst to be helpful….


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