The Changing Status of In-House Business Attorneys

In the past, newly minted attorneys set their sights on private law firms, eager to make their reputations as trial attorneys while enjoying the prestige, media attention, and lucrative compensation inherent in the private sector. In-house business attorneys did not command the esteem or salaries of private litigators, nor did their employers feel confident in their legal prowess when litigation reared its ugly head. Companies with in-house legal departments often subcontracted trial work, including the discovery process, to outside firms.

That is changing in the post-Great Recession era, as cost constraints require even large companies to adopt expense-reduction measures. A major approach is to keep legal work in-house.

The New Role of In-House Counsel

As the role of corporate counsel changes and expands, the legal landscape is being transformed. The prior model of in-house counsel handling labor and employment issues, tax and licensing matters, and regulatory and administrative law, while subcontracting litigation work to outside firms, is not sustainable for many companies in this economic climate.

Conversely, domination of the field of private law practice by big, full-service law firms may not be sustainable following the financial crisis and a very slow economic recovery.

Integrating with the Company

The growing trend to integrate in-house legal departments with their companies’ business operations involves general counsel in strategic planning more than ever before. A major evolution is the mandate by senior management for in-house counsel to identify potential risks and take measures to mitigate them. Rather than reacting to events, as they have in the past, corporate lawyers are moving from “putting out fires” mode to being proactive and working with executives to plan strategy.

Top managers value corporate lawyer who can develop the ability to recognize future legal and regulatory threats as well as align their interests with corporate goals. In short, in-house counsel now has a seat at the table and must bring value to the discussion.

Knowing the Business

It is essential that in-house attorneys understand the company’s business and corporate objectives, be able to discuss these with executives in their terminology, and predict which areas may have future legal or regulatory hazards. This requires forming relationships with key people in other departments, keeping abreast of trends that may affect operations, and becoming cognizant of the company’s commercial and financial outlook.

Compensation for In-House Counsel

Intensified responsibility brings with it increased working hours, but is likely to also augment compensation—especially if general counsel is given equity in the company. The business environment in which corporate lawyers now operate is faster paced than ever before, often requiring them to make quick decisions without time to conduct a thorough analysis. Longer hours, greater workloads, the necessity to learn many areas of the business in order to contribute—these factors may play some havoc with the work/life balance that is the traditional reason many attorneys choose in-house positions. After all, the corporate legal department is a cost center and, as such, is expected to maximize its value to the company.

The upside is the in-house lawyer is not under the pressure experienced by lawyers in outside firms to develop new clients, keep timesheets, and constantly increase billable hours. This is probably the main advantage of in-house legal work over affiliation with a private legal firm.

In-house business attorneys are changing perceptions within their companies from their former role of reducing negative outcomes to being agents of positive change. This status shift makes the corporate legal department an attractive alternative to private practice.

Byline

Manny Richardson writes on finance, law, banking, business, taxation and other related areas. Those interested in business and finance should consider viewing the banking jobs with moneyjobs.com.

Image credit goes to Takvoryan Attorneys.