As a general matter I would divide most large companies’ legal departments into a few general silos: operations, compliance, corporate, and litigation. Within corporate, you’ll typically find labor and employment, real estate and facilities (unless you’re working for, say, a real estate developer or construction company), and perhaps IP depending on the company’s industry. Calling these “practice areas” is probably a bit of a misnomer, but the idea is that when you go in-house you’ll probably end up slotted in one of these general verticals, especially if it’s a big company.
In my experience, the best place to be as an in-house lawyer is corporate. Unlike being in a law firm, where it can actually be an asset to be in a satellite office, I believe very strongly that in order to succeed long-term in-house you must sit it in the company’s corporate headquarters, which will probably mean working in this corporate silo. Otherwise it’s unlikely that anyone senior on the business side who can be your champion in terms of moving up the corporate ladder will really get to know you or even know who you are.
Next, you want to avoid working in practice areas that are purely overhead and that business people hate. In my experience, that in-house practice area is litigation; if you “love” to litigate then you should stay in a law firm. Compliance is a close second. Especially in the tech world, but in the world of public companies generally, I have found “compliance” to be something that the business and even others in the legal department who support fast-moving internal clients just do not respect. So when it comes time for you to get promoted or look to move internally, people will view you as less of a pro-business lawyer and more of a blocker, diminishing your chances.
If you’re not in corporate, then all that is left is operations. And I actually think ops is a good place for an in-house lawyer (probably second-best). You will learn the ins and outs of running your company’s business. You will deal closely with finance and accounting on a regular basis and really get into the weeds of what business people care about when it comes to risk, exposure, and contracts.
In fact, I think ops is really where the rubber meets the road for in-house law practice. Here is where you’ll make the transition from outside counsel to in-house business advisor. And if you can’t make that segue, or just don’t want to after doing it for a while, it might be best for you to go back to a law firm rather than hammer away at in-house practice using the same skills and techniques that you used in the firm.
One other thought: an area of practice that I’ve neglected to mention in this article, and which doesn’t fit neatly in any of my other four categories, is insurance (although sometimes it might fall under corporate). If you get the chance to handle or touch your company’s insurance program, you should jump at it. Insurance is not well-understood, confusing, and complicated. In my experience the more you are involved with insurance, the better off you will be. (But insurance will sometimes tie in with litigation, so tread carefully here.)
Big companies will have big insurance programs that get renewed every year. You might find yourself flying to London every fall to renew your policies with your company’s general counsel. You will most certainly find yourself interacting with the finance and accounting groups or even senior management as these programs are discussed and analyzed both strategically and for cost savings.
I also think there is an important distinction between dealing with insurance and litigation. The former is in my view deemed much more of a risk management function than a legal one, a necessary cost of doing business, whereas much litigation is looked at by many business people as frivolous and a waste of time and money.
Now, in terms of your finances, you should very carefully consider exactly where your position sits within the company’s hierarchy. Some companies have their corporate legal departments completely centralized and homogeneous in terms of compensation, which can be good. Others have positions sit within different business segments, which in my experience is bad.
This is because it will be very difficult for you to negotiate a raise or a stock grant if your position sits within the business segment. In my experience these types of positions are viewed less as requiring specialists and are generally more of a revolving door. It’s hard to have leverage to negotiate salary and benefits if the position turns over every few years. If you find yourself committed to making the jump in-house, and this is the only type of role you’re able to land, make sure you get the best deal you can on the way in otherwise you’ll be looking for a new position in a couple of years.
What do you think of this analysis? Are there any other practice areas that you would recommend to an aspiring in-house lawyer?