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What’s the difference between working in-house and for a law firm?

in-house lawyers

When many legal professionals begin their careers, they believe their job options are limited to working for law firms or 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 legal professional 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. So 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. 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 (a) help pick outside law firms; (b) review the bills received from outside law firms for reasonableness; (c) make decisions regarding various strategy options; and (d) act 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 the 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 the 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.

In-house 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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Do you have experience in law firms as well as in-house legal departments? If so, share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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