Understanding the In-House Counsel Career Path

In-house legal team discussing career path
by Jerry Levine

It seems an increasing number of private practice lawyers want to make a move in-house. After all, they may specialize in a particular area of the law and may want a variety of legal work. Perhaps, they want to be conduits between business stakeholders and the legal needs of organizations, deeply trusted advisors to the principals in the company, and integral parts of the overall business strategy.

But these lawyers may need help understanding how to transition successfully at the outset and achieve career happiness in the long term. That is because the progression inside and outside of law departments can vary greatly between individuals, organizations, and industries. Nevertheless, some general patterns and common themes have emerged in recent years across many corporate legal careers.

Here is everything you need to know about starting along the in-house counsel career path.

What Does an In-House Lawyer Do?

Today’s in-house counsels are no different than any other member of the company, in that their primary function is to advance the needs of the business. But in serving as attorneys, they are also subject to the rules and regulations governing the law practice. Within a typical corporate law department, they can serve as staff attorneys or senior or general counsel (GC). The former typically carries out research-oriented tasks and supports senior-level attorneys, just like junior associates at law firms. The latter tends to provide more oversight, lead legal teams and acti as chief legal officer (CLO). They are crucial components of management and executive teams: they are trusted advisors to not only chief executive officers (CEOs), but also boards of directors when it comes to legal proceedings or litigation matters.

According to the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), in-house counsels specifically “foster corporate conscience and set the tone for its ethical culture; implement legal educational responsibilities of management and employees; handle day-to-day corporate legal affairs; select and supervise outside counsel; [complete] corporate housekeeping; and supervise relationship with outside auditors.” Whatever function they fulfill, in-house attorneys have a huge impact on all matters of corporate law. Think standard contracts, intellectual property, international trade, and employee and compliance issues. Why Become an In-House Attorney?

Why Become an In-House Attorney?

Hands-on Law Experience

According to ACC, one of the most appealing aspects of going in-house is the chance to work closely with business teams and regularly interact with upper-level management and executives on matters across the legal spectrum. For attorneys at law firms, this level of exposure can be rather limited—and practically non-existent—and the focus is usually on one area of the law. In-house attorneys are involved in business deals from start to finish and have a role in pre-business planning and business strategy. They also see how their breadth of legal counsel work impacts their companies—and then learn from that experience.

Opportunities for Growth

Instead of having a one-dimensional career track—think associates making partner, or moving into non-partner roles, such as special counsel—in-house attorneys have varied career opportunities. Depending on the size of their departments and companies, they may even have a chance to move between practice disciplines: commercial to regulatory, and regulatory to litigation, and so on. They may be promoted to managerial positions within the legal team or executive positions on the business side of things. That results from corporate legal departments having no hierarchies, which see employees rise to the top of a particular discipline and having working relationships with senior corporate leadership.

Quality of Life

Unfortunately, many lawyers are unhappy in their profession these days. American Bar Association research reveals that 28 percent of attorneys are at least mildly depressed, and 19 percent suffer from anxiety. Law firm attorneys are on call around the clock. That means less quality time spent with their families and friends. Although in-house counsels do not necessarily work less hours than law firm attorneys, for the most part, they operate in a corporate environment that allows them to predict and control work schedules, and a corporate culture that permits alternative work arrangements, such as telecommuting, flex-time, part-time and job sharing.

How to Pursue an In-House Counsel Career Path

Consider a Joint Degree Program

First, those pursuing in-house counsel careers should consider obtaining a business degree—perhaps even with a legal degree. Not only do attorneys with a MA, MS, or MBA earn more than those with a JD, but they also have a better understanding of the business world and, therefore, make themselves more valuable to How to Pursue an In-House Counsel Career Path companies, according to the ACC. On top of that, future and active attorneys can learn new skills, such as effective communication and writing. Although the knowledge gained in the classroom does not replace the knowledge gained on the job, it helps future and active attorneys stand out from the competition.

Mobilize Your Personal Network

Attorneys’ individual networks are the best resources available to them. In-house lawyers who build relationships with colleagues within legal and other departments simultaneously strengthen their reputation as collegial and supportive. They are trusted to follow the industry rules and values and are expected to make good on commitments and protect confidential information. These kinds of business relationships are reciprocal and pay dividends.

Utilize Resources to Find Positions

In-house counsels whose work makes supervising attorneys and corporate leaders look good simply become invaluable to them. They can more easily seek out and schedule meetings with these internal business contacts. They can ask them questions about what issues they face and what their long- and short-term strategic priorities are. By understanding their main challenges and solutions—legal and otherwise—they find themselves being able to provide more value when higher positions become available.

Ensure Your Resume is Up-to-Date

Lastly, in-house counsels need to make their resumes as up-to-date and accurate as possible. It should give prospective employers a clear picture of accumulative experience and skills. If an organization carries out every aspect of the hiring process, those responsible for screening and interviewing job candidates will quickly rule out any type or level of experience that does not perfectly sync with what the company is looking for. Whether or not the hiring people are attorneys themselves, they will be focused on keywords and phrases in your resume, assessing how well they match up with those in a given job description.

Ultimately, the in-house counsel career path cannot be paved with good intentions alone. Being exceptional in your day-to-day legal work—even exceeding your expectations—is the name of the career advancement game. So is having a strong sense of what you would like to accomplish professionally and coming up with a strategy you can execute rather quickly—just as seasoned in-house attorneys do.

Have you seen ContractPodAi’s Masterclasses yet? Find out how a telecommunication company helped its in-house legal team by giving them the latest contract management tools. Or learn how ContractPodAi’s general counsel dealt with legal digital transformation head-on.

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