Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Moving In-House

As a lawyer who enjoyed rewarding careers in private practice and then in-house with a Fortune 100 company, I am often asked by lawyers who are thinking about moving from private practice to an in-house position to discuss my experience.  I would like to highlight some of my thoughts and observations in this short article.

A successful lawyer in private practice may want to consider joining a company or other organization as in-house counsel for any number of reasons.  A lawyer may want to really feel a part of the client's business, or may want relief from the financial and marketing pressures of private practice, or may simply want a new challenge.  Regardless of the reason or reasons that moving from private practice to an in-house position may seem attractive, it is important for a lawyer to confine the search to companies or other organizations with a culture and values that are aligned with those of the lawyer.

A lawyer who is thinking about moving in-house also needs to have at least some idea of what to expect. Conversations with friends who are practicing in a corporate legal department should help shed light on what in-house professional life is like.  Private practice and in-house practice are quite different.  From my personal experience, these are some of the key differences:
  • In-house lawyers really need to be accessible.  Clients may be upstairs, down the hall or in the building next door.  They will drop in unexpectedly when they feel they need to see their lawyer.
  • The ability to be flexible is critical.  In today's fast-paced business climate, clients need and expect real-time service.  Priorities and schedules change frequently.  In-house lawyers have relatively little control over their schedule.
  • Clients want their in-house lawyer's best judgment, usually on the spot.  In most situations there is little time to reflect or research a point.
  • Clients want to feel that their in-house lawyer is part of the business team.  While lawyers have an ethical obligation to give clients independent professional legal advice, they need to communicate advice in a way that makes in-house clients feel that their lawyer is part of the team.
  • Clients want creative solutions to their business problems.  Cautionary advice needs to be communicated in a way that lets the clients know that their lawyer is trying as hard as the clients are to find a workable solution to whatever the business problem may be.

Networking is probably the most effective way to find an in-house position, though job postings can also be found on various websites.  A successful lawyer in private practice should approach his or her in-house job search with caution and discretion, especially if the lawyer wants to find an in-house position in the same geographic area where the lawyer is practicing or in the same industry in which the lawyer is currently representing clients.  Existing clients may react negatively if they learn that one of their key lawyers is thinking about leaving the private practice; they may start sending their legal work elsewhere.  Working with an executive recruiter should help reduce that risk by adding a layer of confidentiality to the lawyer's job search.

Note:  This article was republished, with permission, in St. Petersburg International Legal Forum Digest (Digest 07, March 26, 2014), accessible at:  http://www.spblegalforum.com/digest07http://www.spblegalforum.com/digest07.

Copyright ©2014 John R. Allison.  All rights reserved.