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In-house lawyer or paralegal vs. working for a law firm: What’s the difference?

In House Lawyer Vs Working For A Law Firm
Many businesses, especially in today’s economy, find that the expenses involved in hiring outside counsel are too unpredictable and too high. Here are some of the main differences to consider if you’re thinking about going in-house.

Thinking of working as an in-house lawyer for a change? When many legal professionals begin their careers, they believe their job options are limited to working for law firms or perhaps government agencies.

There’s a third option, however, that can lead to a long and fulfilling career. Specifically, we’re talking about working as an in-house lawyer or paralegal for a private company.

Many businesses — especially in today’s economy — find that the expenses involved in hiring outside counsel are too unpredictable and too high.

Companies with frequent or ongoing legal issues often find it more economical to hire an in-house legal team to handle the company’s legal issues full-time from company headquarters.

In-house legal teams can vary in size, scope, and responsibility. Some businesses hire a single attorney to oversee all of the company’s legal issues, while other companies have large in-house legal teams that include attorneys, paralegals, and administrative staff.

Almost without fail, these teams operate differently than a typical law firm. Here are some of the main differences to consider if you’re thinking about going in-house.

You may be more of a supervisor than a foot soldier

Although some in-house legal teams handle legal matters directly, many operate as overseers for outside law firms. This means that you may be called upon to do things like:

  • Helping pick outside law firms.
  • Reviewing the bills received from outside law firms for reasonableness.
  • Making decisions regarding various strategy options.
  • Acting as a liaison for outside counsel who need information about company policies and procedures.

In the case of a paralegal, for example, the in-house professional may be called upon to review the research findings presented by an outside law firm’s paralegal.

In other words, instead of doing the research yourself, you’ll give oversight and direction to someone else’s work.

While this may sound easy, keep in mind that it actually takes a lot of experience and confidence to advise your company on what else may need to be done.

You may find that you get more respect from co-workers

As anyone who has ever worked in a law firm knows, success in that environment is defined in a multitude of ways.

You have to bill a sufficient number of hours; you have to produce a work product that is better than that of your peers if you want to be given top assignments; you have to understand — and adhere to — the law firm hierarchy if you want to move up the ladder.

The pressure can be enormous, and it can lead to a dog-eat-dog environment where you actually feel like you need to “beat” your colleagues in order to have value.

In-house legal environments, by contrast, tend to operate more like a team. Everyone on that team is working toward a common goal — the success of your singular client (the company).

Consequently, legal professionals tend to feel more respected within in-house teams. In one survey of in-house paralegals, for example, over 49% reported that in-house attorneys treated them with more respect than law firm attorneys.

In the same survey, only 14% reported receiving greater respect in a law firm environment.

You may be involved in a greater degree of business strategy

One of the benefits of in-house legal work is that you will often be exposed to the entire life cycle of business strategy.

After all, rather than handling discrete, one-off projects, you will be asked to help shape concepts, policies, and procedures that best position the company for future success.

Let’s say, for example, that you are a paralegal specializing in labor and employment law. Within a law firm environment, you would likely be called upon to research and analyze a particular employment problem that is plaguing a firm client.

As an in-house paralegal, however, you might be involved in drafting or revising the company’s entire employment manual so as to minimize the company’s labor and employment exposure over the long term.

For some people, being involved in this sort of strategic planning is a dream come true.

Breaking down working as an in-house lawyer vs. working for a firm

As we’ve mentioned, working as an in-house lawyer and working for a law firm are two distinctly different career paths for lawyers, each with its own advantages and challenges.

Let’s take a look at the critical differences between the two paths:

In-house lawyer:

  1. Employment: In-house lawyers work directly for a single company or organization, which means they are part of that company’s internal legal team.
  2. Client: Their primary client is the company they work for. They provide legal advice and services exclusively to their employer.
  3. Scope of work: In-house lawyers handle legal matters related to the company’s operations, contracts, compliance, employment issues, and other specific legal needs of the organization.
  4. Specialization: In-house lawyers may need to be more versatile, as they often deal with a wide range of legal issues that arise within the company.
  5. Work-life balance: In-house lawyers typically have more predictable working hours and may experience better work-life balance compared to those at law firms.
  6. Job security: While in-house positions can be more stable, they may also be subject to the ups and downs of the company’s financial health.

Working for a law firm:

  1. Employment: Lawyers in law firms are external to the companies they represent. Law firms may have different practice areas, and lawyers can specialize in various legal fields.
  2. Clients: Law firm lawyers have multiple clients who seek legal advice and representation, which could include individuals, businesses, or other entities.
  3. Scope of work: Law firm lawyers work on a broader range of cases and legal matters, as they are often hired for specific projects, litigation, or advisory services across different industries and clients.
  4. Specialization: Law firm lawyers can choose to specialize in specific practice areas, such as corporate law, intellectual property, litigation, etc.
  5. Work-Life balance: Lawyers in law firms may have more unpredictable working hours, especially during busy periods or when handling urgent cases. This can sometimes lead to a more demanding work-life balance.
  6. Job security: Job security in law firms may vary depending on factors such as firm size, financial performance, and the lawyer’s performance.

Choosing between an in-house lawyer role and working for a law firm depends on individual preferences and career goals.

Some lawyers prefer the stability and focus of an in-house position, while others enjoy the variety and challenge of working for multiple clients in a law firm setting.

It’s essential to consider your interests, strengths, long-term goals, and preferred work environment when making this decision. Additionally, gaining experience in both settings can also be beneficial for a well-rounded legal career.

How does it differ with paralegals working in-house or for a firm?

In-house paralegal

The scope of an in-house paralegal revolves around legal matters related to the company’s operations, contracts, compliance, and other specific legal needs of the organization.

In-house paralegals may need to be more versatile, as they could be involved in a wide range of legal issues within the company.

They work within the corporate environment, closely collaborating with other company departments and employees. Job stability is often a benefit of in-house paralegal positions since they are tied to the company’s ongoing legal needs.

Paralegal in a law firm

Unlike in-house paralegals, paralegals working in a law firm work with multiple clients who have hired the law firm for legal representation, which will typically include individuals, businesses, or other entities.

The scope of their work is broader, and they may be involved in different cases, litigation, transactions, and legal matters across various practice areas.

Paralegals in law firms have the opportunity to specialize in specific areas of law, such as corporate law, real estate, family law, intellectual property, and more.

They work within the law firm environment, collaborating with attorneys, other paralegals, and legal professionals in the firm.

Workload and schedule may vary depending on the firm’s caseload and deadlines, and it could be more unpredictable during busy periods.

In-house lawyer and paralegal jobs are not all wine and roses

As with any career decision, the decision to become an in-house employee does come with risks.

For one thing, FindLaw reports that once you spend time in an in-house legal department, you may find it hard to find work in a law firm again.

So, if you’re one of those people who find in-house work simply doesn’t appeal to you, you may nonetheless be ostracized from law firm life.

Additionally, some of the biggest perks of in-house work can also be detractors. For example, many legal professionals love that in-house jobs do not require them to track billable hours.

Unfortunately, this also means that you will likely be paid less than your law firm counterparts. This is undoubtedly true with respect to your base salary, but you may also find that bonuses based on hours worked are simply unavailable to in-house employees.

Thus, if you’re a hard driver who budgets based on your ability to burn the midnight oil, those long hours may not be as lucrative as they would be elsewhere.

Suffice it to say that if you are considering a career as an in-house legal professional, you should do plenty of research before you make the leap.

In-house jobs can be very rewarding for the right individuals. Just know that those jobs are definitely not for everyone.

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