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From practice experience to organizational structure—asking a few questions can help you determine if "going in-house" is right for you.
“In-house” is a catch-all phrase that commonly refers to many legal roles outside of a law firm, representing a single client—your employer. These employers can include just about any organization, from commercial banks, investment banks, and investment managers like private equity or hedge funds, to public or private companies, start-ups, family offices, or not-for-profits. Unlike the traditional law firm structure, in-house lawyers can generally expect the structure and culture to vary vastly from one organization to the next. If you're interested in an in-house role, here are a few things to think about.
How are in-house legal departments organized?
Some legal departments are large and function like law firms with internal specialists from every practice area. Others can be quite small, with just a handful of lawyers who either field everything or rely heavily on outside counsel. In many instances, all of the lawyers report to a General Counsel or Chief Legal Officer. Other times the lawyers may be dispersed throughout several departments within the organization, interfacing largely with the business teams. The work in-house can be purely legal or provide a mixture of legal and business responsibilities.
In comparison to a traditional law firm role, the biggest differences in the day-to-day experience will be the absence of traditional law firm structure, and most likely, the billable hour. While this may sometimes mean a little less time in the office, it may also be the case that there are fewer opportunities for advancement within your company, or a difference in earning potential.
What are the ideal practice areas for developing a marketable in-house skill set?
The majority of in-house searches seek lawyers with a transactional skill set. That said, not all transactional skill sets provide the necessary experience for every in-house role. Certain practices present a more predictable path to in-house. Here are a few:
M&A lawyers who decide to explore in-house positions will most likely be in the greatest demand given that M&A work is diverse and provides exposure to a broad range of issues such as contracts, governance, partnership, joint ventures, and employment issues. These lawyers are marketable to almost every type of in-house employer, ranging from large banks to small start-ups. To maximize marketability, attorneys should work with a variety of public and private clients across various industries and have experience drafting and negotiating merger agreements, asset or stock purchase agreements, and shareholder, organizational, and governance documents as well as a range of commercial contracts.
Intellectually property & patent law
These days, there are no shortages of in-house legal jobs at tech companies, many of which call for intellectual property or patent law-related work. This type of legal work is also highly valuable for companies manufacturing original chemical, pharmaceutical, and other engineered products as well. Though these companies require lawyers to do the same traditional transactional, corporate or litigation work that other companies do, they may also often need lawyers with extensive knowledge in various technical areas, in addition to having a background in intellectual property and patent law.
Lawyers with capital markets and corporate governance experience will ultimately find themselves in-demand with public companies that have reporting obligations or are frequent issuers of securities or financial institutions that act as underwriters. Prized deal-work includes representing both issuers and underwriters in connection with IPOs, public and private debt and equity offerings and ongoing governance advice, and valuable experience includes drafting underwriting agreements, prospectuses and offering memoranda, proxy statements and SEC filings.
Finance lawyers often land at financial institutions given the similarities between what they do on the law firm side versus in-house. Given the uptick in LBO activity and the increase in funds acting as alternative lenders, many are now moving to private equity sponsors and hedge funds as well. Key skills include a lender and/or borrower client base and exposure to a broad range of financings as well as experience drafting and negotiating commitment papers, credit agreements and other credit, collateral and guarantee documentation.
Fund lawyers typically take one of two routes—advising on formation matters within a private equity, hedge or mutual fund or assuming a compliance role at one of the foregoing. Your law firm client base will typically dictate the type of fund that is most likely to be interested in you. For example, the largest private equity funds will typically look at hires who have experience working with similarly sized/sophisticated funds. The same is true of those working with venture capital or technology funds.
Real estate lawyers are sought after by large banks and investment firms, developers, REITs, and companies with significant real estate assets. The key to maximizing the opportunities available to you includes developing a broad-based real estate skill set encompassing finance, acquisitions and dispositions, joint ventures, and leasing.
Broad-based experience gained via rotations may be advantageous for certain in-house roles as such lawyers typically wear multiple hats given the leaner size of legal departments relative to law firms. The ability to be an expert in one area while also adding value across multiple other disciplines often increases marketability for positions.
What about litigators?
Even though a large number of in-house positions relate to transactional work, employers do also hire litigators. Common among them are large commercial banks or public companies. The theme here is that these employers are big enough to need numerous in-house attorneys with various backgrounds. Some insurance companies, for example, even utilize teams their own claims litigation counsel groups to handle their cases and provide legal advice.
Having trial experience is obviously helpful, but litigators can also increase their in-house marketability by developing a specialty or industry sector expertise. While most employers do not have a need for a generalist complex commercial litigator (as they outsource most litigation matters to their outside counsel), they may need an expert in their industry. Thus, employment litigators tend to find job opportunities within a variety of public and private organizations as well as at institutions of higher education. Insurance litigators also move in-house to insurance companies with regularity. As is the case with tech companies, litigators with intellectual property experience (whether it be patent, copyright, trademark, data privacy, or something else) have knowledge and skills that transfer to many types of companies. And finally, lawyers who focus on securities litigation and/or have worked for the SEC can find interest from hedge funds, investment banks, and commercial banks that need their regulatory expertise.
Is it for you?
There are many nuances to preparing for an in-house move that go beyond the practice area you choose and the type of work you handle. Seeking out advice and insight from others who have experience on in-house legal teams may also help you get a full picture of what is best for you. If you do decide if you're interested in moving in-house, considering the value of each new experience you take on can help you be proactive about positioning yourself to land the role you want, whether it be at a law firm, in-house, or anywhere else.