In-House (Law Departments of Corporations)
For-profit companies reaching a certain size, or which generate enough legal work, often find it more effective to hire their own lawyers as employees rather than hiring law firms. Such attorneys practicing law as employees of a company are called “in-house counsel” and the top-ranking attorney is called the General Counsel or GC. She or he may also be an officer of the company and a member of the Board of Directors in addition to holding other titles, for example “Vice President of Development, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary.”
The work of an in-house attorney will depend on the nature of the business and the size and organization of the company. Larger corporations have legal departments numbering in the hundreds and attorneys may be highly specialized. Smaller companies may have a single attorney who handles all legal issues from employment law matters to regulatory compliance to negotiating contracts for janitorial services. Larger or more complex cases or transactions may be farmed out to law firms to handle under supervision of in-house counsel, and it is rare for companies to use their own attorneys as litigators versus managers of litigation actually conducted by outside counsel.
The career path of in-house counsel typically, not always, begins with a few years to several years (3 – 6 years) at a large law firm where the attorney acquires experience and sometimes may do work for a company which later hires him or her directly. It is more common for transactional lawyers (as opposed to litigators) to become in-house counsel. Traditionally in-house positions have been sought after prizes because of the escape from the pressures of billing time and client development at law firms, the ability to work closely and continuously with business people on projects, and the reputed better work-life balance of in-house attorneys. In more modern times many in-house lawyers are under pressure to tightly control billing by outside counsel and work longer hours themselves since doing so is less expensive for the company, so lawyers looking to make the transition need to conduct careful due diligence before taking this important step.
For law students, opportunities to work inside corporations tend to be limited. A small number of companies may offer internships during the school year. Hewlett-Packard (HP) is alone among large legal departments which hire graduates directly from law school and their First Year Attorney program is highly competitive (click here to view a webcast of an interview of one attorney who started her career at HP). Best advice for law students who are thinking of an in-house position as a long-term goal is to keep abreast of business news in one or more industries and where possible cultivate connections in that field. Extracurricular work in centers or on journals which emphasize business issues may also be helpful in showing a sustained interest in business in addition to law.
WEBCAST (audio only) of panel discussion of four Berkeley Law alums currently practicing in-house (April 28, 2011). Click here for bios of the panelists.
Collection of personal profiles of General Counsel at a number of major companies.