Essentially in-house counsel are lawyers that look after the legal needs of the organization they work for.
After graduating from law school, the young lawyers is faced with making a decision on whether to work as an in-house or private practice Lawyer. It is a difficult decision to make, and making it does not make the path to that in-house job any easier.
With that in mind, before making the decision, you need to do your homework. This article will help you explore the differences between in-house and private practice, and if you decide in-house practice is for you, it will also help you understand how to prepare yourself and your resume for that job hunt.
As you review the following differences between in-house and private practice, keep a couple of things in mind. First, remember the practice of law is not a cookie-cutter experience. For every difference we set out, you will be able to find an exception to that generalization for both in-house and private practice. Also, as you read, think about your strengths, skills, and career desires. Where would they fit best? What would bring you the most career satisfaction?
Differences between In-House and Private Practice
One important difference between in-house and private practice lawyer is who they work for. Lawyers in Private Practice work for a variety of clients. This exposes them to multiple variations on particular legal issues based on client industries and goals and gives lawyers in private practice a richness of experience and expertise in specific areas of law. They are contacted by the client when the client has a concern in the particular area of expertise. The client and lawyer talk only sporadically, and only when the client believes it has a crisis that is deserving of a consultation with a lawyer. Because the company wants to manage its outside expenses, there are specific protocols for who the private counsel deals with at the company.
On the other hand, in-house counsel technically have only one client—the company that employs them. Their work must always be consistent with the mission and goals of the company. However, within the company, the in-house counsel has a variety of departments, managers, and leaders who the counsel must work with. In this type of setting, your reputation is key. You need to be able to respond to the varying needs of multiple customers and build day-to-day working relationships with people from all different backgrounds and departments within the company to succeed.
Having only one client can also affect the practice of an in-house lawyer. The effect is different depending on where you work. For instance, in smaller companies, the company is not likely to produce as much volume in any one practice area to allow singular specialization. Instead, in-house counsel in smaller companies are generalists with multiple areas of specialty. For larger companies or companies with high-volume needs in certain areas, in-house counsel can specialize.
Legal expert vs. business expert
In addition to practice variations, there are general differences in the way the skills of in-house and private counsel are used. Private practice lawyers are relied on for their expertise in particular areas of law. This can play out in two ways. First, there are certain practice areas where a private practice firm takes the lead on a matter. This pattern is played out most frequently with complex litigation, including patent litigation. In that case, the in-house department works in partnership with the firm on strategy, coordination of internal discovery, and other issues related to the litigation. However, the private practice firm takes the lead and actually prosecutes the case.
A second way the expertise of private practice counsel is used by in-house staff is for their subject matter expertise. The in-house legal department is generally expected to handle legal matters themselves and to reach out to private practice firms only when the issue presented is beyond the expertise of the in-house department.
In-house counsel are expected to translate the legal expertise, either their own or that of the private practice counsel, and make recommendations for solutions that make sense for the company.
Episodic work vs. business partner
Another important difference between in-house and private practice is in the nature of the engagement. In private practice, attorneys are called in on an as-needed basis. They address the issue requested and then leave. The in-house lawyer, on the other hand, is involved for the long term. Typically, a private counsel may be retained to prosecute a case while the in-house counsel will review and consult. Once he is done, a private attorney moves on to the next client’s project. In contrast, the in-house counsel is continuously scanning the environment for developments in the company’s areas of innovation.
As pointed out at the outset of this section, the differences between in-house and private practice are not absolute. Individual jobs vary. However, the differences are generally the case and can help you find an environment in which you can thrive. If, after considering the differences, you are convinced an in-house role is for you, the time to start planning is now. The next section of this article explores factors to consider when searching for an in-house role