Why Corporate Counsel Isn’t What You Think

When I was in law school, I would often think about what type of attorney I wanted to be. Should I go into private practice, government, or corporate? I grew up with the television show L.A. Law but also had a firsthand glance at the prosecutor’s office, working as a police officer for 10 years. It’s the corporate attorney aspect that I was unsure of.


It was safe to say I knew what I was getting into as a prosecutor. Handling the same criminal cases that I dealt with as a cop, only this time, dealing with the daunting task of convicting people with the evidence presented by police. Long hours, low pay, and not really what you think of if Corbin Bernsen was your idol (yes he was, I’m not perfect, so sue me).

But what about being corporate or in-house counsel? It was a little-known world to me at the time. There are benefits as well as drawbacks to becoming an attorney in the first place, but I’ve learned that being a corporate attorney has the most.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

When it comes to being an in-house attorney, forget about billable hours. Spreadsheets, invoices, and attempting to collect from deadbeat clients are never an issue. You will have a salary and simply need to fill out a timesheet in accordance with company policy. Corporate attorneys get paid on time just like the CEO, COO, or any other employee in the company.

I used to think of corporate counsel as the lonesome kicker. Never really seen, talked to, cared about, or even acknowledged until the game is on the line and you are expected to perform. However, that is completely wrong. As a corporate attorney, you are involved in business decisions and considered part of the team. And let’s not forget the money. While it doesn’t guarantee you will become rich, it does pay better than a prosecutor, and you don’t have all the billing worries you will with private practice.

The bad? Well, according to BCG Attorney Search, there are many.

“There are several little-known facts about going in-house that may not necessarily make it the best career decision for you,” writes BCG Los Angeles Managing Director, Harrison Barnes, about how going in-house can be one of the worst decisions a good attorney can make.

“It is extremely difficult to get another law firm job once you have gone in-house. The overwhelming majority of attorneys do not reap an economic windfall when they go in-house. It is also very difficult to move to another in-house job once you have gone in-house; your legal skills are likely to deteriorate once you go in-house, and you may have to work as hard in-house as you did in a law firm.”

The ugly thing about being in-house counsel is you are often stuck between a rock and a hard place. In private practice, you can tell a client what you think about their case without fear of retaliation. The worse thing that can happen is they leave and go with another firm. With in-house counsel, you also need to consider that “client” may send you down the road where again, it may be difficult for you to find work.

Think Beyond Common Issues

Most people know to address common issues, but as in-house counsel you need to recognize the underlying causes of potential litigation.

For instance, if you allow employees to drive company vehicles, it is common to have a policy against drinking and driving. What you may not have considered is that almost 20% of truck drivers have undiagnosed sleep apnea. Imagine if someone who falls in that 20% works for you. Do you require medical certification? Can you require medical releases for drivers? Many questions need to be answered before you find yourself $10 million out of pocket down the road.

And that is just for employees driving company vehicles. Now let’s throw in situations such as:

  • Employees prone to anger who work in your customer service department.
  • Temporary employees who may not understand company policy.
  • That “great” idea implemented by the marketing department which turns out to be plagiarized from another company.
  • The employee who lied about their background, and who you hired without doing a thorough enough background check.
  • Finding out you really should have a company policy about fraternization (which you should have implemented prior to that sexual harassment lawsuit).

I could go on and on, but as in-house counsel, you will experience them all soon enough.

Everyone Looks to You for Answers

You are the go-to person for all things legal. In fact, if someone can remotely tie their situation to the legal department, it will get dumped in your lap. Think about this.

Do you know any corporate attorneys? Have you seen their office? It’s not like you see on television. The last office of an in-house attorney I visited looked like a war zone. Although he was borderline OCD, he could not keep up with the onslaught of problems thrown his way. From customer service issues to employee terminations to slip-and-fall accidents in the parking lot of the business.

Don’t expect to be in the boardroom with a suit and tie. Instead, most of your time will be spent going through piles of paperwork in your office. You’d also better learn to get along with others, since people will be stopping by your office asking questions they could otherwise find with a quick Google search. But since you’re there, the short walk to your office will outweigh anything they can find on Google. So be prepared for even the dumbest questions that may get on your nerves after a while.

The Choice Is Yours

I won’t make the case for what type of lawyer you should be. I’m simply sharing my experience with trying to determine that for myself. In fact, I made it easy for myself and eventually became a marketer after receiving my law degree.

Many people go into law knowing exactly what type of practice they want and pursue it throughout their legal education. For me (and likely you), that decision is a little more difficult.

Being a corporate attorney has many benefits and drawbacks; some of the widest ranges of both that you could experience as an attorney. Only you can decide what’s best for you, but if you do decide to focus on becoming an in-house counsel, be prepared for the unexpected.  To some, that is the greatest attraction of all.

About the Author

Mike Wood is the founder of Legalmorning.com, an online marketing agency specializing in content writing, brand management and Wikipedia editing. Contact Mike on Twitter @Legalmorning.

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