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5 things you should know . . . about in-house

|Written By Danya Cohen

So, let’s just tell it like it is. The cases in the Ontario Reports are about as well read as the instructions to every lopsided piece of IKEA furniture you’ve ever assembled. But they do serve their purpose.

Like the sentimental editorial in a trashy mag (not this mag!), they lend a legitimate façade to something far more salacious — the careers section. And among those shiny opportunities, in-house openings are always the favourite child.

It’s true, going in-house can make for happy endings but associates often make the first move with little idea of what to expect. You will figure it out, of course. You always do. But not knowing what to expect can actually hurt you on the way in too. More and more, employers are differentiating in-house hopefuls on their understanding of the realities of corporate law department life. When you have never been in-house, this creates an obvious conundrum. So, in an effort to make the interview more successful, the transition smoother, or even the initial decision clearer, here are five things you should know about moving in-house.

Beyond memos and the word ‘no’

As one corporate counsel put it, being in-house is about being faced with a variety of business objectives that can run into legal stumbling blocks. Your job as counsel is to find the path of least resistance to achieving those goals which is really a lesson in risk management. So if your client wants to get from A to B, but the preferred course will likely mean criminal charges, your job is to find the alternate course that is only confined by some soft regulatory language.

Gone are the days of being able to give up at “no.” What sucks about this is that just when you have mastered the oxymoronic art of being really concise yet thorough in written opinions that are worthy of a literary prize, you realize that you will probably never write a memo again. What’s great about this is that instead of being the heavy, you get to be . . . the fixer? Very Tarantino, very cool. This perception is especially important because it will set the culture for how legal is viewed by management including how much management involves you in business decisions.

In terms of delivering legal advice, the expectation is that you will deliver real-time, pragmatic advice that gives actual recommendations in a way that resonates with business people who don’t really care to know what the steps to the Oakes test are.

So, some things you can cut out of your repertoire are — case citations, legalese, loads of options with no recommendations, and the word “no.”

Finally, as you get into more senior in-house roles, the analysis may become even further removed from your legal upbringing. You may be expected to figure in a whole whack of things like the profitability of the company and corporate reputation. So don’t be surprised if those imposter blues hit you all over again.

No-frills law

Let’s face it, firms are built to impress. I too was taken in by the corridors filled with art that confused and therefore impressed me, the internal winding staircases (weird, I know — but I always thought these were especially cool) and the on-site printing team that was like a word-processing tuck shop. But if you really want to be in-house, you may not want to develop a dependency on warm cookies. Snacks aside, the greater withdrawal often experienced is a lack of resources. This is certainly not always the case but some associates find that one of the biggest transitions is learning to cope without luxuries like scores of lawyers to bounce your ideas off of, heaps of precedents, and an assistant that remembers your birthday.

It’s not all scary. While you are expected to figure out more things on your own and make more judgment calls, there is new support in the way of external counsel. One in-house lawyer explained that external counsel is an opportunity to confirm conclusions that she arrived at on her own. Another in-house lawyer said for matters that are farther outside his expertise, external counsel is often a starting point that prevents him from spinning his wheels.

Aside from external counsel, online resources may become another saving grace. One in-house lawyer pointed out that, in addition to traditional online resources, online precedents stemming from CLEs she attends are something she frequently consults.

On the administrative side — I can’t really help you out. You will either have good support or a good chance that the receptionist will tell you to bugger off when you ask her to type a letter for you. You can avoid this predicament to some extent by asking what kind of support a position offers at the interview stage. Two points, however: I would wait until you know you’re a favourite (at least a second interview) and certainly avoid harping on the subject as it can be hard to put out there without sounding obnoxious.

In the end, it is not so bad and while the company is not going to shell out for a library and warm cookies, you realize they are shelling out for the best resource — you.

You can’t run, you can’t hide

The good news is you have traded 10 bosses in for one. The bad news is that now success and happiness in your job are tied to one person. Kind of scary. Unlike that tyrannical partner you were able to avoid at your firm, when you move in-house, you have to make sure your main working relationship is one you can stand and is hopefully also, a productive one.

As you shed the multiple employers, however, you also gain a new roster of internal clients. And not only will you be the main point of contact for these clients, but they may also be within shouting distance. This means your boss and your clients can always find you. Moving in-house can therefore involve losing some of the buffers that make practising a little less scary. But it can also mean a more fulfilling career.

With respect to your boss, it means you are working more closely with one person and if you are lucky, this can translate to greater respect, mentorship, and advancement. With respect to your internal clients, it means you are gaining a more holistic view of your work by dealing directly and independently with a whole slew of stakeholders such as audit, marketing, and sales.

Slackers need not apply

Though I would like to sound more inspiring, I cannot fib. The number one reason associates seem to flee private practice is for better hours. Although firms have made several creative attempts to reduce attrition, many associates realize that after all the life-coach rhetoric, boardroom yoga, forced socials, and failed flex arrangements, firms will never be able to replace your therapist, gym, social life, or nanny.

What some might find surprising is that most good in-house opportunities are not the end of hard work. What they usually do offer, however, is predictability. Many in-house lawyers report that they work just as hard in terms of the challenge of the work and the intensity of their day, but they are usually able to leave work at a regular and fairly decent hour.

For those who need something solid to chew on, this may mean the following: You may work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 9 to 7. You will likely not work from 9 to 5 but equally almost never from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. You may work some weekends, but not as often — and frequently you may have the option to work from home. You will not have to docket. You will not gain control over how much work you get but you may be able to control when the work gets done. Did I mention you will not have to docket?

What this all translates into is making your hockey game most nights, being able to keep your non-lawyer friends around, and not having to shell out for cancellation insurance on your next trip.

Finally, a quick tip: when interviewing, potential employers do not want to hear that your main motivation is your desire to work less, even if you call it balance. What they may not understand is that working less for you just means getting home before dawn. So as soon as you put it out there, the assumption is that you’re looking to slack off. Have some good answers in your back pocket as to why you want to move, and if you really feel the need to be honest, call it predictability instead of balance.

Cake, pie, and money

Even the greenest associates know the benefits of in-house life almost always come with a corresponding cut in pay. It’s the whole “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” line (which I never got, by the way, because I don’t see anything greedy, over indulgent, or even presumptuous in expecting to eat some cake when you already have one — eating a piece of cake and a piece of pie, that would be greedy). I digress.

The dreaded cut in pay when moving in-house can happen in a few ways. Associates may take a hit at the outset as in-house starting salaries can be anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 less than private practice. The more junior you are, however, the less of a cut you will likely take. This is definitely not a nudge to leave earlier (if you are going to make the move at all), but the reality is that companies typically rise to a minimum threshold in order to attract top talent. This means that junior associates are sometimes not taking a cut at all in their first year and are sometimes even doing better.

Where in-house incumbents really feel the burn is the reality that the increase in pay year to year with in-house jobs is not guaranteed, nor is it typically even close to the increase that private practice promises. Whereas associates can expect to jump anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 every year, in-house salaries tend to increase at or just above the rate of inflation. Finally, bonuses, too, can be less or non-existent and are sometimes tied entirely to company performance.

That being said, all in-house bound associates will benefit from an active in-house market. This has driven salaries up as companies have adapted to the reality that they are often competing with other employers for their top candidates. As you become more senior, however, the ceiling on in-house salaries will become more prohibitive to making a move as in-house will simply not be able to compete. The moral of the story being, if you want to move in-house, you may want to start weaning yourself off of “pie” . . . and perhaps Porsches, private school, and Prada too.

Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with RainMaker Group. She can be reached at