Unconventional Legal Career Paths: Pivoting to an In-House Legal Counsel Role

September 13, 2022

The legal industry is shifting from firm power to general counsel power. Driven in part by the growing recognition of the strategic and monetary value that in-house lawyers provide to companies, more and more corporations are looking to hire their own in-house counsel, rather than contracting with outside firms.

Starting out in an-in house legal role is still seen as an unconventional career path, however. For law students looking to begin their legal careers as in-house attorneys at corporations, or for early career lawyers looking to pivot to general counsel roles, it can be hard to know how to position yourself if you’ve never been trained in that position before. One piece of advice that rings true in this area is “instead of credential building, think about skill-building.”

In this four-part blog series, we explain the difference between working at a law firm and working in-house and propose tactical ways that law students and lawyers can succeed at an in-house position, even without prior hands-on experience. Looking ahead, we also offer suggestions on how schools and corporations can build a better pipeline to in-house legal roles, and give tips on how you can increase your marketability with in-house legal recruiters and hiring managers.

Background: In-House vs Law Firms

How is the job of an in-house lawyer different from being a firm lawyer? And is the outcome of a lawyer self-learning better than one coming from a firm into an in-house team? 

Here are two of the top differentiations:

Time valuations

Billable hours are how law firms measure employee productivity. It’s also the primary way that law firms generate revenue. When working in-house, it’s not about billable hours, but rather about working efficiently. That’s because there’s only one client: the company that employs them.

The role of the attorney.  

Part of the role of corporate attorneys, employed by law firms, is to look at risks and legal issues in contracts or business dealings. When working in-house, as opposed to at a law firm, merely highlighting risk is less of an emphasis.  Instead, the in-house counsel role is focused on offering solutions to business partners. Developing solutions for the business and learning to navigate different cross-functional priorities becomes more important than only pointing out where the risks exist.

Things to be aware of when transitioning between roles:

Because of the differences in these two positions, there is some “un-training” that happens as one transitions from a law firm to an in-house position. In a firm, for instance, there may be implicit biases that come from mentalities of looking to bill hours, focusing on mining for risks without necessarily offering business solutions, and shifting decision-making onto the client. Even writing style can be an adjustment as you transition from writing “Blue Book emails” to outlining concise, actionable steps.

On the other hand, when you start your career in an in-house position without exposure to a firm environment, then there is no need to unlearn unhelpful behaviors picked up from private practice. The caveat is that you need to build credibility quickly as an in-house attorney without firm experience. Having prior business experience is an added plus for this path, and legal ops and tech experience can also help.

In the next blog, we highlight the top two skills needed to transition to an in-house position. Click here to read it.

This article was written by Memme Onwudiwe, Executive Vice President of Legal and Business Intelligence at Evisort, Jack Terschluse, Corporate Counsel & Acting Corporate Secretary, Head of Procurement at Balto, and Lynn Ma, JD Candidate at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and was first published by the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists. It has been edited and adapted slightly for this blog series.

The legal industry is shifting from firm power to general counsel power. Driven in part by the growing recognition of the strategic and monetary value that in-house lawyers provide to companies, more and more corporations are looking to hire their own in-house counsel, rather than contracting with outside firms.

Starting out in an-in house legal role is still seen as an unconventional career path, however. For law students looking to begin their legal careers as in-house attorneys at corporations, or for early career lawyers looking to pivot to general counsel roles, it can be hard to know how to position yourself if you’ve never been trained in that position before. One piece of advice that rings true in this area is “instead of credential building, think about skill-building.”

In this four-part blog series, we explain the difference between working at a law firm and working in-house and propose tactical ways that law students and lawyers can succeed at an in-house position, even without prior hands-on experience. Looking ahead, we also offer suggestions on how schools and corporations can build a better pipeline to in-house legal roles, and give tips on how you can increase your marketability with in-house legal recruiters and hiring managers.

Background: In-House vs Law Firms

How is the job of an in-house lawyer different from being a firm lawyer? And is the outcome of a lawyer self-learning better than one coming from a firm into an in-house team? 

Here are two of the top differentiations:

Time valuations

Billable hours are how law firms measure employee productivity. It’s also the primary way that law firms generate revenue. When working in-house, it’s not about billable hours, but rather about working efficiently. That’s because there’s only one client: the company that employs them.

The role of the attorney.  

Part of the role of corporate attorneys, employed by law firms, is to look at risks and legal issues in contracts or business dealings. When working in-house, as opposed to at a law firm, merely highlighting risk is less of an emphasis.  Instead, the in-house counsel role is focused on offering solutions to business partners. Developing solutions for the business and learning to navigate different cross-functional priorities becomes more important than only pointing out where the risks exist.

Things to be aware of when transitioning between roles:

Because of the differences in these two positions, there is some “un-training” that happens as one transitions from a law firm to an in-house position. In a firm, for instance, there may be implicit biases that come from mentalities of looking to bill hours, focusing on mining for risks without necessarily offering business solutions, and shifting decision-making onto the client. Even writing style can be an adjustment as you transition from writing “Blue Book emails” to outlining concise, actionable steps.

On the other hand, when you start your career in an in-house position without exposure to a firm environment, then there is no need to unlearn unhelpful behaviors picked up from private practice. The caveat is that you need to build credibility quickly as an in-house attorney without firm experience. Having prior business experience is an added plus for this path, and legal ops and tech experience can also help.

In the next blog, we highlight the top two skills needed to transition to an in-house position. Click here to read it.

This article was written by Memme Onwudiwe, Executive Vice President of Legal and Business Intelligence at Evisort, Jack Terschluse, Corporate Counsel & Acting Corporate Secretary, Head of Procurement at Balto, and Lynn Ma, JD Candidate at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and was first published by the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists. It has been edited and adapted slightly for this blog series.