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Why Going In-house Is Often the Worst Decision a Good Attorney Can Ever Make


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Last Updated: Aug 21, 2023

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Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 1

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Summary: Learn why the belief that going in-house is a good career move is completely wrong and what going in-house actually does to your legal career.
Trying to decide if you want to go in-house as an attorney? Learn why you shouldn't do it.

In this article, you will learn what the negative effects of going in-house can be on a career and about the realities that the challenging work an attorney thinks he might be getting in making such a move might forever pass him by.

When I was practicing law, one of the strangest things I noticed was the tendency to hold two types of "good-bye parties" for attorneys leaving the law firm. If the attorney was leaving to go to another firm, go to work for the government, start a firm, or do nothing, it was generally a small, boring affair where sometimes only a few people showed up. But if the attorney was leaving to go in-house—well, that was another story!

Read related: Pros and Cons: In-house vs. Law Firm Practice

Partners often dropped everything to show up at a parting lunch where they fawned over the leaving attorney and complimented him, wished him well, told him how much he was respected, and what good work he had done. Everyone seemed to show up at these lunches, even the most important attorneys in the law firm. I had no idea why this was. Partners jockeyed for position to sit next to the attorneys going in-house and treated them like legal heroes. You have never seen an awkward, thin, four-eyed pencil pusher look so glorious. For a few moments in their lives, they have become legal gladiators to be admired and respected. You could still feel "the glow" surrounding their presence hours after the parties. Many even received parting gifts from partners and others.
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

These lunches were unlike anything I had ever seen—and a real antidote to the depressing affairs of other attorneys leaving the firm. Knowing what I know now, these lunches should not have been a cause for celebration at all. Instead, they should have been FUNERALS marking a sad end to a talented attorney's career.

In the book (and movie) The Hunger Games, the children who are chosen to go off and fight to the death, known as "the tributes," are given wonderful food and treatment before leaving for a fight they are almost guaranteed to lose. They are treated incredibly well by superiors, who for the most part had never been nice to them and had forced them to live in bleak, depressing circumstances. For one moment, however, before they go off to die, people are very nice to them and make them feel important. This is exactly what a parting lunch for an attorney getting ready to go in-house is like.
Nothing is ever as it seems inside of a law firm, and the myth surrounding not just the parties but the WHOLE ROMANTIC IDEA of going in-house is one of the strangest and most dangerous Jedi mind tricks in the entire legal profession. Going in-house is a CAREER KILLER and something that has destroyed the careers, lives, and families of more attorneys than I can count. I speak with them every day and it is depressing and just plain wrong.

But first, let's get to some facts that perpetuate the myth that going in-house is somehow a good thing:
But first, let's get to some cold hard facts that perpetuate the myth that going in-house is somehow a good thing:

1. Who would not want to go in-house counsel after seeing one of these legal celebrations for departing tributes?

Never in an attorney's career will she be lauded and made to feel so good about herself again. Who could not think this is the right thing after getting so much positive feedback? You are a hero, not just in the eyes of your superiors but in the eyes of other attorneys as well.

FACT: Partners and others make attorneys feel good about going in-house for one simple reason: That attorney might give them business in the future. This is a simple fact. While many attorneys are likely to meet mentors and others inside a law firm, from a business standpoint, partners and others care very little about departing attorneys unless they believe those departing attorneys will give them business in the future. They do not show up at the parties of attorneys leaving for other pursuits because they do not care.

Read also: Top 9 Ways For Any Attorney To Generate a Huge Book of Business

Keep in mind that working in the legal profession and staying employed in high-paying competitive law firms is a game. Good attorneys understand this and they are going to play KISS ASS with anyone they believe can help them on their way. Good law firm attorneys go out of their way to meet and ingratiate themselves with anyone they believe can help their careers—and in this case, that means giving them business.

This is the way the profession has worked for thousands of years. It has not changed and will always be like this.

2. Who would not want to go in-house after working often inhumane hours inside of a law firm and being treated so poorly?

That's right! If you are unhappy or overworked in one environment, a different environment surely looks better. Just like "the tributes" from The Hunger Games! Volunteer for something different and all of a sudden, your life changes and everyone is nice to you! The environment is the problem! Switch environments. It is that easy. This is all you need to do to make a great living and have a long, happy legal career! Now, how to become an in-house lawyer?

FACT: Becoming in-house counsel is not always a career saver that makes people happy. Most often, going in-house is a career killer. I will elucidate the numerous reasons for this below; however, here are a few of the reasons this is such an insane choice for most attorneys:
  1. Your skills will deteriorate rapidly and significantly. The most important work will be sent to law firms and not done by you.
  2. You will become a "cost center" and not a profit-generator (in most instances) and will be one of the first to go when the company experiences problems—and all companies do.

    Read In-House Counsel Salaries for more information
  3. You will no longer be employable by almost any law firm whatsoever when you lose your job—and you most likely will lose your job inside of a company.
  4. Most companies want to hire younger attorneys for the best in-house counsel jobs (often from law firms) with "fresher" skills than an in-house attorney coming from another company.
  5. Without clients of your own, you will have zero control over your career.
  6. When the company experiences some significant legal problems—and most companies do—you and others in the legal department who "touched" the matter will all likely lose even the best in-house legal jobs.
  7. Most attorneys inside of companies are the "resident buzz kills" who spend their days covering their asses by telling management (i.e., people actually doing things) what is not possible. They become impediments to getting things done and are often not liked too much by people inside of the companies either (i.e., they become more isolated and lonelier inside of companies than they were inside of law firms).

3. Who would not want to be an in-house lawyer after being surrounded by LEGIONS of other associates and others who constantly talk about going in-house as the DREAM!

One of the most INSANE conversations I have with GOOD ATTORNEYS on a daily basis is when they tell me they are interested in going in-house. It does not matter what firm the attorney is at—they could be at WachtellDavis Polk or any other number of great firms. They could be making $450,000 a year as a junior-non equity partner. They could be outstanding attorneys who have written and spoken extensively about what they do. Many even have lots of clients. I spoke with one attorney who wanted to go in-house who had $3 million in business.

It really does not matter who the attorney is: Regardless of their qualifications, these attorneys somehow think going in-house is a dream and something that is going to change their lives and careers for the better.

When the entire culture of a law firm and the people in it are always promoting and saying how great going in-house is, there must be something to it. Most people—attorneys included—are followers and if everyone is saying something is a great idea, it must be true. Especially if people with great qualifications are saying it.

FACT: The smart associates and others who are talking about how great it is to go in-house are not talking about this because they want to go in-house: They make this seem like a good decision because getting rid of you means there is less competition for them.

The smart partners who encourage other partners that this is a good decision (1) want that partners’ clients and (2) a bigger share of the profits. No one inside of a law firm is ever going to tell you that going in-house is a bad idea BECAUSE IT DOES NOT BENEFIT THEM.

Nearly every attorney wants to be liked by other attorneys. By romanticizing going in-house and making this seem like a great thing, the smart attorneys are helping themselves and improving their own careers at your expense. If anyone is telling you that going in-house is a good idea, then you should smile and get the hell away from this person. They are dangerous.

You may wonder why I have such negative opinions about going in-house as a lawyer. I am a legal recruiter and make my living placing attorneys. There are attorneys for whom going in-house may be a good idea (and I will get to these attorneys shortly). However, going in-house is a horrible decision for most attorneys and something that can destroy their careers. Most attorneys go in-house because of a massive amount of misinformation that is out there. It almost never is a good decision.

Working as an attorney for clients who pay you for your services is something that has been around for thousands of years. The billable hour is a relatively new invention—but attorneys coming together and representing various businesses and individuals has been around for as long as the practice of law has existed.
It is the legal system itself that has changed. With large industrial law firms, hundreds of law schools, and a relatively low barrier of entry into the legal profession, associates and partners have become "commoditized" and are valued and advanced essentially by (1) how many hours they work and (2) how much business they have.

Click Here to Find Out What In-house Attorney Positions Actually Pay.

With the rise of giant American corporations in the United States after World War II (when  much of the rest of the world was rebuilding itself), law firms began building themselves up to mirror the way corporations operated and grew to accommodate the business from these new corporations. As this happened, the law firm began to "depersonalize" its attorneys. The attorneys who did not have the potential to rise inside of the now more competitive and demanding law firm (or were not succeeding) were sent to work inside of the corporations so the law firm would have "allies" to send business to. Prior to this time, it was rare for an attorney who joined any law firm as an associate to ever leave, much less go to work inside of a corporation. To attract the best talent to impress their corporate clients, law firms began paying higher salaries to new associates with the expectation that they would get the best people, even if they did not last long.

As associates and others began participating in this law firm assembly line, the "lure" of going in-house became something that was perpetuated by the law firm management and others for the lowest performers who did not have the potential to advance. Regardless of how this was couched, the whole idea of going in-house was and always has been a way for law firms to get rid of people they do not want, make them allies of the law firm and people disposed to give the "real performers" future business. No one ever tells attorneys this, but the myth of going in-house really has been perpetuated by law firms and others to make room for better people who have what it takes and understand what being a good attorney really means.

See also: Challenges of Shifting In-House From a Law Firm

So the natural questions you may be asking yourself are "What does it take?" and "What does being a good attorney really mean?"

See the following articles for more information:
The answer to both of these questions is surprisingly simple and has remained constant as long as there have been attorneys. The form has changed, just not the substance.

If you were practicing law in a New England town of 10,000 people or so a hundred years ago, the odds are that you would be a solo practitioner. There would probably be a few other attorneys in your town that you would also be competing against to get work.

The most successful attorney in the town would likely be the attorney who engaged with the community a lot and was trusted by many people. This attorney would also take his clients' interests very seriously, really bond with them, and do everything he could to make sure his clients benefited from using him, whether it was winning a case, being protected in a transaction, or avoiding a problem. The attorney would charge fair rates, be respected by others in the community, and thought of as a real advocate. The attorney would probably be a member of various local organizations and would write articles, give talks, and do other things to get himself out there. These kinds of attorneys would show up at local funerals, be invited to weddings for client families, and generally get out there and be seen and trusted.

In contrast, the least successful attorney would not do these things. He would not get out there and be seen. His work product would be less thorough, and he likely would not be overly concerned with winning or protecting his clients. These attorneys would be more interested in themselves and their needs than spending time joining organizations or trying to meet new clients and going to various functions. They might be smart, but none of that really matters. They would not be trusted to do a good job and would not be out there being seen. They might care so little about practicing law that they would be happy to take a job with the government or some other job where they could coast.

In reality, being a successful attorney today is no different than it has ever been. The important components of being a successful attorney involve (1) being seen, (2) being trusted as a real advocate, and (3) bonding with a variety of people. Not doing any of this is what makes an attorney unsuccessful.

See related: How to Succeed in the Practice of Law

What has changed as law firms have become more "industrial" organizations is that some people who get into the practice of law and stay there would have not done well a long time ago. A few hundred years ago, if you graduated from law school, the odds are you would have been practicing on your own. In order to get business and survive, you would have needed to get out there and meet people and have a pleasing personality. You would need to impress people with your work product, and this would have been something that would have been an overall driving force for you, not how many hours you billed.

If you worked inside of a small law firm, it would have likely been with another attorney, and he too would have encouraged these sorts of behaviors in you to build his own practice and make the two of you successful.

In contrast, none of the behaviors that make a really good attorney today are really emphasized for attorneys in most law firms. With the billable hour taking center stage, attorneys are valued more for their ability to bill hours than for their ability to bond with clients, get new clients, and, in many cases, even for the quality of their work. This has resulted in a de-emphasis (or no emphasis at all) on the things that are actually important to most attorneys' careers in modern law firms because the people at the top simply need billing machines.
Though it may sound depressing, that is how it is. Young attorneys and senior attorneys without business are simply "billing machines" and that is their role in an industrial law firm. They are fungible commodities that can be rapidly replaced and whose careers no one really cares about. What the law firm needs are simply people who can bill as many hours as possible. The more the better! The attorney will be kept around as long as there is enough billable work to keep him busy. When it dries up (and it generally always does as the attorney gets more senior with an increased billing rate that "prices him out"), the attorney will be kicked to the curb and unceremoniously wished a "nice life," and a younger attorney (with lower billing rates and more energy) will be brought on to repeat the process.

The lucky ones may get jobs in-house and then they can be "heroes" after enduring this process.

Wash, rinse, dry, repeat … Wash, rinse, dry, repeat … Wash, rinse, dry, repeat …

This really is what occurs all over the world with attorneys now. It is part of the lure of going in-house, but attorneys are all missing the forest for the trees: The only thing that matters is having business and building a book of business. The longer an attorney puts this off the more screwed that attorney will be.
The entire goal for an attorney's career has never changed: Your responsibility to yourself and your career is to get out there, meet people, make a name for yourself, and get some business. Once you have a stable book of clients, you are set and your career can continue indefinitely.

If an attorney has a large book of business, she can generally work wherever she wants, in practically any firm she wants. If you have big enough clients and a large enough billing rate, you can work in just about any law firm in the country you want to, regardless of where you went to law school or how you did there.

See also: How Can I Get an In-House Counsel Job Straight Out of Law School?

I've seen attorneys who went to fourth-tier law schools and had lousy grades but understood the rules of the game. They started out in small firms and then got bigger and bigger clients and kept rising and now have base salaries of over $2 million at the most prestigious law firms in the country.

There is no limit to what any attorney who understands and plays the rules of the game can do.
I know one guy that went to an UNACCREDITED California law school and was dyslexic and had all sorts of learning disabilities. He understood the rules of the game and got out there. He ended up getting an LLM from a good law school (something any attorney can do – they are not hard to get into at the LLM level) and became a big-time partner in a major American law firm. He has a huge book of business, and despite his learning disabilities and other issues (his style of practice is more "talk" than substance, in my opinion), he really cares about his clients and does a PHENOMENAL job getting out there and meeting people. He even got a job as an adjunct professor at a top 15 law school.

THIS IS THE GAME! This is all you need to do in order to be successful in practicing law. That is why the best attorneys come out in droves to celebrate an attorney going in-house: They want clients and understand the game very, very well!

Unfortunately, this game has no connection with going in-house or what it means to be an attorney. If you go in-house this all ends. When you go in-house:

1. Your skills will deteriorate rapidly and significantly. The most important work will be sent to law firms and not done by you.

In most cases, attorneys who go in-house are going to face rapidly declining skills and an environment that does nothing to maintain their skills. Law firms are very good at keeping up the skills of their attorneys.

For one, most attorneys inside of law firms are "specialists" and doing only one type of work. In addition, law firms generally give you a lot of the same type of work to do. There are all sorts of checks and balances inside of law firms, such as people reviewing work, other attorneys offering input, and so forth. New legal developments also quickly move through the grapevine of law firms and attorneys learn about this information and incorporate these into their skill set quickly.

The constant amount of work, emphasis on detail, and level of analysis inside of a law firm are most often far, far beyond what in-house attorneys receive. The pressure to constantly produce good work for paying clients, who can take their work elsewhere, also increases the quality of work that law firm attorneys do.
In-house attorneys quickly learn that it is much easier to give challenging work to outside counsel than to do the work themselves. The culture of most in-house legal environments is such that in-house attorneys quickly learn that they can use the money and resources of the company they are working for to "deflect" challenging and time-consuming work elsewhere. This not only gives in-house attorneys more time to do nothing. It also serves that "added" function of helping them "cover their ass" and make sure the work is done well (so they do not get fired).

As their skills deteriorate more and more, many in-house attorneys do everything in their power to send work to outside counsel. They realize that their self-imposed laziness has made them increasingly clueless and incompetent when it comes to the important issues relevant to protecting their company. As this process continues, outside counsel will start joking among each other about how little the in-house counsel knows and using this lack of knowledge to charge the company even more money and make issues seem far more complex to the clueless in-house counsel than they actually are. The in-house counsel gradually becomes "the fool" to law firm lawyers.

Read related article: The Inside Scoop on How to Hire the Very Best In-House Counsel

When the in-house counsel does sit down to do some semi-serious work, whether it is writing a memo, marking up a brief, or putting in some time in transaction-related documents, the law firm lawyers are always very quick to laud the in-house counsel and tell him how "brilliant" and outstanding his work was and run this up the chain of command to corporate management, if possible. As the in-house counsel is praised to upper management, he reciprocates by sending the law firm more and more work and creating even further inefficiencies and waste for the company he has been hired to protect and save money for.
  1. You will become a "cost center" and not a profit-generator (in most instances) and will be one of the first to go when the company experiences problems and all companies do.

Attorneys are hired all the time to go to work for companies to assist with projects that can last anywhere from several months to a few years.

A company embroiled in contentious litigation will happily bring on a few litigators from a large law firm to save them millions in legal fees (until the litigation ends). A company involved with acquiring several companies in a space may get a few in-house attorneys from a firm like Skadden Arps, for example, to save it millions (until the acquisition spree ends). A company needing to do lots of patents in a space will happily hire some patent attorneys to do the work until they are done writing the patents.

I am a recruiter, and as part of my job, I speak with candidates all over the world who are seeking jobs. It it common for in-house attorneys to lose their jobs when the work dries up or the company experiences financial problems. I would estimate that there are thousands of these attorneys in every decent-sized city in the United States. They become desperate for work after they lose their jobs and it becomes incredibly difficult for these attorneys to find any new job.

When things slow down inside of companies, they generally will save money by getting rid of people who cost them money and fail to generate it.

Inside of a law firm, if an attorney is billing hours and generating enough to cover her salary and overhead, she is generally safe and will not lose her job.

If an attorney has business of his own, he can always support himself, and if he has enough business and he can support a law firm as well, he will never lose his job.
An interesting thing I see a lot of are in-house attorneys who either (1) lose their jobs or (2) quit working in-house and are under the mistaken impression that the company will send work their way when they leave, even enough work that they will make more money working on their own!


I've seen this happen a few times in my long career as a legal recruiter, but not often. In-house attorneys are regarded as SECOND OR EVEN THIRD STRINGERS, and once they go in-house, even the management of the company starts thinking of them as less competent than outside counsel. They are the weak gazelles that the lion was able to grab from the herd. Because in-house attorneys are seen as less competent, they are not the sort of attorneys the company is going to send work to when they leave. Regardless of what the attorney may think of themselves inside of the corporation, they are almost always regarded as less competent than outside attorneys.

They also do not have the name of a big law firm behind them, which companies take pride in using.

None of this is meant to be disrespectful to in-house attorneys, this is just how it works. Most companies will not send work to in-house counsel once they leave because they are simply not regarded as highly as attorneys from law firms.

3. You will no longer be employable by almost any law firm whatsoever when you lose your job – and you most likely will lose your job inside of a company.

Many attorneys who go in-house are under some sort of PSYCHOSIS and think by leaving a law firm to go in-house, they will be able to go back to a law firm again. Huh? Going from in-house to law firm is almost an impossibility.

Why would a law firm want you back? You have already proven you are a weak gazelle and will likely leave it again. You already have left the "game" and showed that you are not interested in playing it. Your death as an attorney has already been celebrated by other attorneys and you were given a farewell "death lunch" when you left. Your law firm career is dead.

Do in-house attorneys ever return to law firms? Of course they do. Most often it is patent attorneys and tax attorneys with "nerdy skills" who are in demand by law firms that need "back-office types" who can work anonymously as long as there is work available. Corporate attorneys sometimes can go back. Litigators almost never can. ERISA attorneys can sometimes go back, depending on how specialized they are.

Read related:
All of this is to say that law firms are generally not going to welcome any in-house attorney back. They have shown they are not part of the fraternity. Going back is exceedingly rare. Generally, the attorney who tries to come back needs to have (1) awesome qualifications – top law school, grades, and initial law firm, (2) incredible recommendations from a prior firm ("Best associate we've ever seen!"), and (3) not more than a few years of experience, generally no more than five with about one or two years of that being in-house (with a powerful in-house company with a great reputation).

Those are the basic parameters, but to be completely frank, it rarely works out. For the most part, the attorney who goes in-house becomes a pariah to law firms.

How bad is it?

I've seen in-house counsel from major corporations lose their jobs after sending TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in business to various law firms. But those law firms that once kissed their asses, asked about their families, remembered birthdays, and were very, very nice to the in-house attorneys when they were sending them business GO 100% COLD when the attorney leaves or is fired and tries to get the law firm to hire him. None of it matters. Law firms look upon in-house attorneys in a negative way and almost never hire them. They do not even return their phone calls. It is sad, shocking, and amazing, but this is what happens.

I've seen this so often it makes me both angry and sad, but it is what it is. Law firms generally do not respect in-house counsel, will never hire them, and do not want anything to do with them after they leave. Most law firms think in-house attorneys are losers. I hate to be so direct, but it is a point that has to be made bluntly because it is true. And you sure as hell better understand this before going in-house.

4. Most companies want to hire younger attorneys (often from law firms) with "fresher" skills than an in-house attorney coming from another company.

Some companies want in-house attorneys coming from similar companies. For example, a pharmaceutical company that does a lot of acquisitions of smaller pharmaceutical companies may prefer an attorney coming from another pharmaceutical company that does the same thing. A real estate company that builds shopping centers may prefer an attorney from another company that builds shopping centers.

However, for the most part, when companies are hiring in-house counsel, they are interested in younger attorneys and (most often) younger attorneys coming directly from law firms.

If the attorney is coming directly from a law firm, the company feels like it is getting a better deal: "We were paying $450 an hour for him at Bingham McCutchen and we only need to pay him $175,000 a year here!"

Also, smart companies know that younger attorneys coming directly from law firms are more likely to do the work themselves rather than trying to push it off to outside counsel. They also know that these attorneys are going to be less versed in the sort of "do less work" and "cover your ass" mentality that is picked up quickly by attorneys once they go in-house. Smart companies are efficient and like law firms, want people who are most likely to do the best work for the least amount of money. Attorneys coming from law firms are generally hungrier and more desirable.

These generalizations are not always true, but they are generally. What happens when companies start interviewing attorneys from law firms and companies for in-house positions? They generally choose people from law firms. Attorneys from companies show up in the interviews and act like they know how to run the in-house legal department (or how things should be done) and seem "jaded." In contrast, law firm attorneys show up and seem enthusiastic and malleable (i.e., they will follow orders and try to impress).

All law firm attorneys know that once they have more than six or seven years of experience and no business, most law firms are unlikely to be interested in them.

Read related: What to Do if You Are a Law Firm Partner Without Business

"I'll work for a second-year associate's salary!" these attorneys exclaim all the time.

Unfortunately, it is the ability to follow orders, work hard, try to fit in and impress superiors, a desire to advance, and so forth that law firms and companies are seeking. They are not interested in older attorneys without this.

Recently I was representing an attorney with about eight years of experience and unbelievable qualifications who was interested in a "non-partnership-track" role in a major law firm. When I say this attorney's qualifications were outstanding, I mean an attorney who had qualifications similar to these: working at the top law firm in his city, first in his class from Stanford Law School, first in his class at MIT, a published author of many important papers in his field, and so forth.

Every top-tier law firm interviewed this person, but no one would hire him. They all said the same thing: "It does not work for us if the person is not motivated to be a partner. We need people here who are willing to work toward that, and it messes up our culture if there are people here who do not care about this."

Many senior attorneys without business do not have the drive that companies or law firms want. Something happens to them after they get to be more senior or spend time in a company that makes them no longer desirable. Everyone wants "fresh meat," and once you have been used (and lose the drive to advance and be malleable), everyone is done with you.
The only solution – AGAIN  to any of this is to get business.

5. Without clients of your own, you will have zero control over your career.

You could have had federal criminal charges brought against you for a financial crime and spent a year in rehab for being a crack addict: If you have business NO ONE CARES and you can get a job in a major law firm (not every law firm, but most law firms). This is the name of the game. Law firms want attorneys with lots of business who know how to bring in clients and keep them. I've seen attorneys with some of the most unbelievable backgrounds (shocking and bad things in their backgrounds) advance and be considered world-class attorneys, all because of business.

I was in a Palm Springs Casino several years ago when I was a young practicing attorney and saw one of the most prominent law firm attorneys in the United States (a name partner at one of the most profitable major American law firms in the country) gambling at a table and sitting there with two women in short dresses who were not his wife. It was 11:00 in the morning and he was incoherent and barely understandable because he was so drunk. He was insulting the dealer and screaming loudly as he was losing each hand. He then stood up and went outside and smoked with the two women and slapped one of them on the ass.

I could not believe it. How could someone like this possibly last in the practice of law? Incredibly, this guy has continued to rise. I've seen this guy on the cover of magazines and all over. He is one of the most respected and famous attorneys in the United States.

IT DOES NOT MATTER! If you have a lot of business, no one cares! Business is the name of the game.

You can do whatever you want if you have a lot of business. This is all law firms care about. This is the only way of "keeping score" in a law firm.

There is a partner at a California law firm with a lot of business that kept losing associates because they had to work so hard. He decided to give them an eight ball of cocaine every Monday morning so they could work hard throughout the week. Each Monday they would line up at his door like mechanical robot drones and shuffle in with their heads down and hand out to receive their weekly supply.

The partner stopped losing associates and they started working even harder. The partner got more work done and the law firm and partner both made more money.

When the management found out, what do you think happened?

Not much. The partner is still there and this was years ago.

IT DOES NOT MATTER! The partner had business and this is the entire name of the game.

Partners with business have control over their careers. So much so that they can do pretty much whatever they want. They are in complete control.

6. When the company experiences some significant legal problems – and most companies do – you and others in the legal department who "touched" the matter will all likely lose your jobs.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock your entire career, you are surely aware that just about every company experiences various serious legal problems at some time. Companies get sued in class actions, they do something and the government investigates them, public policy changes and the public comes after them in court or elsewhere for one thing or another.

If serious legal problems come up in a company, who better to take the fall for all of this than the attorneys in the legal department? In the eyes of management, it is certainly better to punish your legal department than take the blame yourself. Our attorneys screwed up.

And this is what happens to in-house attorneys all over the country. They lose their jobs in droves daily as one legal issue after another comes up that gets the company in trouble. Regardless of whether is it their fault or not, they are often let go just for being there when things go wrong. Even if it is not something they could ever have possibly had any control over.
When these attorneys are harshly let go and lose their jobs, the fun does not stop there. They are also PERMANENTLY TAINTED as the attorneys who did not prevent the serious legal problems. They become UNTOUCHABLE, not just by law firms but by other companies as well. They are "marked" and spend the rest of their careers as outcasts for reasons they may not have possibly ever been able to prevent.

When you think about it this way, the "Hunger Games Style – Sorry You Are Going Off to Die" parties for "tributes" start to make a lot more sense. Being a fall guy for an entire billion-dollar-plus company cannot possibly be a fun thing for anyone. In a law firm, the worst thing that can happen to an attorney with clients is to lose one of them. In a company, an attorney can be blamed for its collapse due to some legal issue.

The legions of these in-house attorneys out of jobs and permanently untouchable are profound. I talk to them almost weekly. It is an unfortunate but a real part of what happens to attorneys who go in-house. For most in-house attorneys, it is only a matter of time before something happens. How could it not? The larger the company, the greater the odds that something will cross their desk (or someone in their department's desk) that they will miss and that will end their careers.

7. Most attorneys inside of companies are the "resident buzzkills" who spend their days covering their asses by telling management (i.e., people actually doing things) what is not possible. 

They become impediments to getting things done and are often not liked too much by people inside of the companies either (i.e., they become more isolated and lonelier inside of companies than they were inside of law firms).

The people who are actually doing things inside of companies that generate money (i.e., the executives, sales team, and so forth) generally always say "we'll send it to legal" before doing various things.

When you are in "legal," your job becomes telling the various "doers" and "actors" inside of a company why something cannot be done or at least the risks associated with taking various actions. After some time, most attorneys inside of corporations are avoided because they are a damper on people who are trying to get things done. This is not to say that the attorneys are not providing a useful service. Instead, this is to say that the attorneys are generally seen as "holding back" the company and not contributing to its growth.
None of this is true, of course. A good attorney is actually protecting the company and preventing it from getting into trouble so it can make even more money. However, when a company is under pressure from stockholders to generate more money and the people inside of the company have various goals, the attorneys generally are not the most popular people.

There is a catch-22 to all of this, of course:
  • If the attorney misses things and the company gets into trouble, the attorney will lose his job.
  • If the attorney finds too much fault and makes getting things done too difficult, she will not be liked by management and will be seen as an impediment to getting things done.

When I talk to attorneys who go in-house and have lost their jobs (or are unhappy), they often say they hated it because the company was "always trying to cut corners" or was "unethical." Other attorneys who have gone in-house try to get along with management by finding ways to get things done but then find themselves out of a job when things go wrong, and they always do.

Being in-house is a very difficult political game. There is often no one right way to do things. In an attempt to find a balance and not be considered the bad guy or gal, attorneys start referring everything to outside counsel and then tell management "outside counsel recommends" and so forth. This then becomes a habit and their skills deteriorate even more. Soon they find themselves in the position of a messenger for "real attorneys." They are no longer attorneys and more like docile messengers.



You may wonder if there is any environment out there where "the game" is emphasized and where attorneys will be trained to play the game, meet people, and perform the way that law firms operated before becoming industrialized. There is! In fact, I am constantly amazed by this type of law firm because this is the only place where the game seems alive and well.

It is the personal injury law firm. Here, there are no longer any billable hours and attorneys are encouraged to make a name for themselves, get out there, be members of the community, and advocate for their clients. When you look at the websites of many of these personal injury law firms, you can see that they are trying to help these attorneys make a name for themselves.

There are most often pictures of ALL OF THE ATTORNEYS STANDING TOGETHER in contrast to the photos of just one attorney's face in the large law firms. The attorneys often have written numerous articles and given many talks. Most of the attorneys are smiling, looking social, and for whatever reason, a large proportion of the photos show the attorneys standing up and not just their faces.

Interestingly, the personal injury law firm is about the only type of law firm out there where the billable hour does not exist. It is the sort of law firm that all law firms used to be. There is no one to impress but the client and the client could be any individual – so schools, grades, and other "surface" qualifications no longer matter. The only thing that matters is the personality and drive of the attorney.

The "game" of getting clients and impressing them exists in the industrial law firm as well, of course. Attorneys just do not see this and have been blinded by a system that gives them the illusion that somehow working inside of a corporation is a better use for their skills when in most cases it is the end of their self-respect and happiness as an attorney. If they go in-house, they will no longer be an attorney and will become something else entirely.

I've made more in-house placements than I can count, and although I specialize in doing law firm placements, there are certain attorneys who should be practicing in-house. I am going to deliver some harsh news here and tell you the sort of attorney who should be working in-house: The sort of attorney who should not be an attorney.
  • If you do not care about ever getting new clients and impressing them with good work, you should go in-house.
  • If you are more interested in having other people do the work than doing it yourself, you should go in-house.
  • If you are suicidal with your career and family and do not care when your career will end – and are interested in having it end suddenly and without warning – you should go in-house.
  • If you are interested in politics and playing dishonest games with your time and legal matters, you should go in-house.
  • If you want the feeling at the end of the day that you have not accomplished much – but someone else has – you should go in-house.
  • If you have no idea why you are an attorney, you should go in-house.
  • If you are interested in long stretches of unemployment, you should go in-house.

All of these are valid reasons to go in-house.

Here is the deal: Being a "real" attorney in private practice is like having your own business. You get a law degree, learn some skills, and start bringing in clients and doing work on their behalf. The local dentist, chiropractor, doctor, and others in your community do this. Why not you? They need pleasing personalities, fair rates, and a good reputation to do this. Like attorneys, the people in these professions have also been doing this for thousands of years.

Women for some reason think they are going to have better lives and time to raise their families if they go in-house. This is ridiculous. I know tons of talented attorneys with huge books of business who are mothers and working in major law firms. If you are a woman and want more time with your family, by all means, get some clients and then have other people do the work for you. You need control over your work and not an in-house environment. Your career and life will continue to prosper and grow if you have clients. Do not go out to pasture to die at the age of 28. If you are talented enough to get a job in a big law firm, you are talented enough to get clients and continue growing.
You cannot and should not ever lose the perspective that being an attorney is like running a business. You need clients to run a business. This is the game and the only means of control you have over your life and future.
  • I rarely see attorneys going all out inside of large law firms to get business. They would rather go in-house and lose control over their future.
  • I rarely see attorneys moving to smaller firms or different geographic locations where they know they could get business. They would rather go in-house.
  • I rarely see attorneys doing everything they can to become sought-out experts in their practice area (writing, speaking, teaching). They would rather go in-house.

This is my call to you and attorneys everywhere – in the most direct way possible – to wake up and be an attorney and run your legal career in a way that is likely to be meaningful and give you control. Be a winner and do not give up. Learn the rules of the game and play the game.

Check out the BCG In-House Employment Resources to get all information on going in-house at once.

Frequently Asked Question

What Is An In-House Attorney?

A corporate in-house attorney is an individual who works as an attorney for the company. The in-house attorney, like any other employee, is primarily committed to the business's interests. In-house counsel is subject to the legal profession's rules and regulations, just as any other attorney.

In a typical in-house legal department, attorneys are divided into two categories: senior counsel (including general counsel and other senior-level attorneys with oversight obligations) and staff attorneys. The General Counsel (GC) is the head of corporate legal affairs at a company, typically also serving as the company's Chief Legal Officer. The GC usually advises the Board of Directors and company officials in legal cases. The GC frequently reports directly to the Chief Executive Officer and is considered a key component of the management team.

Senior attorneys are in charge of managing lower-level staff attorneys. They provide legal advice to the law firm on one particular legal area or assist the GC in coordination with outside counsel on legal matters. Attorneys with a JD, MBA or doctorate of law can serve as staff attorneys. Like junior associates at a law firm, they are frequently given research-oriented projects or asked to assist the senior staff attorneys. The titles at the top of this hierarchy, however, are still utilized in various ways by many legal departments. As a result, aside from the General Counsel, attorneys are known as corporate counsel.

In-house lawyers, nevertheless, is more than legal advisor to a company or entity; in-house attorneys have an impact on the complete range of that body's decisions. Legal knowledge of the company's business strategy is important for the lawyer to properly safeguard the legal rights of a client. Although attorneys will generally have a greater stake in the legalities of decision-making than with the substantive ramifications of a company's business strategy, both are necessary for counsel to effectively protect a client's legal rights.

In-house legal departments are divided into four major areas:

1) General Counsel's office (also known as a corporate department). This department is the largest and has the broadest responsibilities. The Chief Lawyer oversees all policy decisions and legal issues that arise while running the company.

2) Legal department, which includes corporate compliance and other corporate activities that can be quite diverse.

3) Litigation team, which is the part of the company that handles all litigation issues. In-house attorneys often work as litigators for a short period of time early in their legal career to gain experience since outside law firms do not typically allow young lawyers much experience in litigation.

4) Compliance/Ethics group, which provides advice on legal matters that arise from compliance issues. This typically includes ensuring that employees are aware of laws and company policies related to issues such as discrimination, harassment, employee rights, and other areas involving potential liability for the company. These departments also often help large companies draft internal documents related to compliance issues, such as code of conduct policies and employee manuals.

In-house counsel can also be found in a variety of sectors, including finance, retail, manufacturing, technology, telecommunications, and healthcare. The job responsibilities for attorneys working in these areas will vary depending on the industry they work in.

How Much Do In-House Counsels Make?

The average In-House Counsel salary in the United States is $235,512 as of October 29, 2021, but the salary range typically falls between $206,498 and $269,550

What Work Does In-House Lawyers Do?

In-house lawyers often find themselves having to deal with day-to-day tasks such as:
  1. Drafting contracts and other instruments.
  2. Handling litigation, which includes not only representing the company in an actual trial (or arbitration) but also conducting internal investigations and advising on what documents to issue or depose.
  3. Advising on compliance issues, which involves helping companies identify legal problems that may result from ethical lapses or employee misconduct and then formulating solutions to correct the problem.
  4. Assisting with mergers and acquisitions (which are not always easy processes).
  5. Advising on intellectual property matters, including copyright, trademark, and patent issues.

An in-house lawyer generally has less interaction with the top management in large corporations when compared to outside counsel since they are not involved in high-level litigation matters that can result in a great amount of media attention. In addition, the job responsibilities will be more demanding due to client demands and the fact that an attorney will be the first person at their company to handle issues that arise.

Smaller companies may have fewer resources, which results in increased strain on the attorneys who work there; however, smaller organizations tend to attract attorneys who are more enthusiastic about helping out with all of the necessary projects that need attention.

One advantage is that you will be able to avoid the "billable hours" requirement of private practice. It is not uncommon for individuals to leave the practice of law for this reason alone.

Due to budgetary constraints, corporations may also be more willing to compensate their attorneys at a level that can be much lower than what you would have made as an outside lawyer. However, depending on your perspective, this can either be a good thing or a bad thing.

How To Become An In-House Counsel?

To become an In-House Counsel, you must first qualify as an Attorney and specialize in a field such as commercial contracts, intellectual property, data protection, or corporate law. You will be able to make your initial move into In-House positions once you have earned a few years of PQE.

When searching for a job as an In-House Legal Counsel, it is important to look at the employer's requirements. The following In-house experience and abilities are common among successful In-House Counsel:

• Experience working in a corporate or commercial environment where you have been tasked with conducting due diligence, assessing risk, and applying laws.

• Depending on the seniority requirements of the job, you may be asked to have a certain number of years of experience as a commercial lawyer working in-house or in a top firm.

• Strong communication skills, analytical skills, and presentation abilities are required.

• Sound understanding to form and maintain excellent business relationships.

• The capacity to explain sophisticated legal concerns and risks in terms that non-legal counterparts can comprehend.

• The capacity to work in an entirely autonomous position.

In What Ways Do In-House Lawyers Have An Advantage Over External Lawyers?

In-house attorneys are similar to partners of law firms. Many attorneys specialize in a specific portion of the legal industry, but partners at major law firms frequently represent clients across many industries. For example, many large businesses have internal departments that rival those of any legal practice in the same region. There are even some larger corporations that have more in-house lawyers than outside counsel at any given time.

The benefits of becoming an in-house lawyer can be very beneficial and should not be overlooked:
  • You will never be without work because you will always have something to do and your employer is responsible for paying your salary.
  • The hours are not as demanding as those for an attorney outside the company, which allows you to continue with your personal life.
  • In-house lawyers have a very relaxed dress code and work environment, not to mention that they are generally paid more than anywhere else.
  • You will face a host of new challenges every day depending on what type of company you work for. There may be mergers and acquisitions, litigation, patents, licensing, compliance, and many other types of issues with which you must deal.
  • You will begin to understand how all the different departments work and how they depend on each other and practice law.
  • Generally, in-house attorneys at most companies do not have to deal with anything that has occurred before their employment. This means that you can help shape the future of the company.
  • You may be able to foster better working relationships with another legal team within the organization. This can help you in the long run if you decide to leave your job and search for employment elsewhere.
  • If you are in an upper-level in-house position, you may gain knowledge about financial issues that will ultimately put you in a position to provide more valuable legal advice.
  • You can gain further legal expertise in one area of law since you will have the opportunity to work with only that area. For example, if your background is in Information Law, but there is not an Information Law department at the company where you are employed, then you can become an expert in Information Law by working in the IT or Intellectual Property department.
  • You may be able to influence the development of policy and procedures within the company.

The possible negative aspects for joining an organization as an in-house lawyer can be quite varied:
  • Your job might not be secure; companies often outsource functions for which in-house attorneys are responsible.
  • In-house lawyers may receive relatively low pay compared to what they could have made outside the company, especially large corporations that can easily afford to pay their in-house team extremely well.
  • The hours in a corporation tend to be more demanding than private practice only because you are more likely to be subject to "corporate hours."
  • You will not have the same freedom that you had as outside counsel.
  • It is usually little or no work-life balance in working for a professional organization.
  • You may find it difficult to relate with former colleagues, who generally do not understand the "ins" and "outs" of in-house attorneys' work.
  • You are likely to have limited advancement opportunities unless the company has an excellent track record for promoting their attorneys into management positions.
  • You may find that your job is not as interesting or challenging as you expected it to be.
  • It will become more difficult to take time off from work.
  • There will not be as much diversity in the type of law you practice. For example, if your background was litigation and there is no litigation department at your company, you might not have any opportunities to litigate for a long time period.
  • You may find that it is difficult to keep up with new developments in your area of law or maintain client relationships.
  • You may not be able to exert the same level of control over your work that you had as outside counsel; for example, you might have a case assigned to you by an attorney who is much less experienced than yourself and it will be very hard for you to decline the case.
  • There may be a lack of mentoring from senior attorneys in your company since there are generally not as many experienced attorneys as there were at private law firms.
  • You might think that your chances for advancement or salary increases will be greater if you work outside the company. However, this is not always true.

Do not play a game you are almost certain to lose.
Learn more about going in-house in the following articles:
Click Here to Learn How to Get a Fair In-House Salary

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About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog, HarrisonBarnes.com, and BCGSearch.com, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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