Thursday, August 16, 2012

4 Myths About Working In House

When I talk to firm lawyers or law students I'm often struck by how little they know about how the practice of law works for in house lawyers.  Like many jobs there are some prevalent misconceptions, ones that may hurt your chances of ever getting hired in house if you're not careful.  So as my PSA for the week, here are 4 myths about working in house.

4.  Myth:  No more billable hours.  Partly true, but mostly false.  While in house lawyers don't have  pressure to meet some arbitrary billable hour minimum in order to make their bonus or get promoted, we do still track our time.  Depending on the company you will have to track the time on each matter in order to allocate resources to various departments or affiliates for budgeting purposes or you may have to do daily or weekly "status reports", which in form your superiors of what you're spending your time on.  These can be more frustrating than billables, because while you don't have to reach a minimum you do have to account for your time in a way that shows your value to the company to people who often have no clue what lawyers do or how they do it.  Tell a hiring manager that you want to make the jump to in house for a better "work life balance" or to get rid of billables and your shooting yourself in the foot.

3.  Myth:  In house lawyers don't know as much about the law as firm lawyers.  Again, partly true, but mostly false.  In a law firm, you have the luxury of specializing.  Often the more you specialize the more valuable you become, because you're the "go to" for a particular issue.  In house, even when legal roles are specialized you are a generalist in that area.  An in house employment lawyer must know, at a minimum, the basic of employment law (wage and hour, FMLA, discrimination, etc), labor law (at least keeping tabs on the NLRB's latest), ERISA and litigation management.  But when she needs outside help, she hires a litigator, a labor lawyer or an ERISA specialist.  Her knowledge in any of these areas is going to be more shallow than the outside lawyer, which leads to the impression that in house lawyers don't know as much about the law.  But she'll know more about ERISA than a litigator and will know more about drafting pleadings than an ERISA lawyer.

2.  Myth:  All in house lawyers do is manage outside counsel who do all the real work.  As a firm lawyer working for corporate clients you are often working for in house lawyers.  This does two things, first it gives the impression that in house lawyers just run interference with the business guys and two, it allows us to run interference with the business guys.  Trust me when I say that you'd rather work for me than for them.  I set expectations for budget, results, methodology, etc. so that you don't have to deal with very unreasonable demands.  I also have to keep you on track to manage to those expectations that I've set.  While trying to keep costs down, I work to coordinate the internal efforts of gathering the information and resources you need to do what we've asked you to do.  And then I get to do my day job.  Most in house law departments will do 75-80% of the legal work for the company.  That means for every contract we send out to be negotiated by a firm, I do 20 or 30 in house.  For every litigation matter we send out, I've settled, negotiated or gotten us out of 3 or 4.  And that doesn't begin to touch the daily "what about" questions that come in asking for general legal advice.  I'd be very happy although probably bored if all I did was manage outside counsel.  Of course, it would also probably lower my firm costs because I'd have more time to tell you why billing .9 hours for reviewing and answering that email is ridiculous and why I absolutely will not pay for any line item that says "attention to".

1.  And the number one myth:  Lawyers go in house that can't or don't want to make it in big law.  It's easier, in house lawyers don't work as hard or as many hours as their law firm counterparts.  False!  While it's true that in house lawyers don't regularly put in 100 hour weeks, the do still happen. It always amuses me when my firm friends comment on how lucky I am to work in house so I don't have to work the crazy hours and then go on their second or third vacation of the year the week after the trial is over.  I don't regularly work 100 hour weeks.  It's generally more like 55-60, with the occasional spikes of 70+ when things are getting busy.  But it's consistent.  There aren't "slow times" when I can take the family on vacation.  Like every other employee, I get 2 or 3 weeks vacation time.  And I'm usually working remotely while on vacation.  I finalized a settlement 2 hours after my second son was born.  And negotiated a renewal of our insurance policies the week after my third son was born.  In house work is hard, it's constant and often under appreciated by both the business people who you work for and who don't understand what is involved in your daily job and your counterparts in the legal community who think you've taken the easy road to practicing law.

Heard any other rumors you want confirmation for?  In house compatriots have any other rumors you'd like debunked?  Leave them in the comments.

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