"Running a business is all about establishing relationships to help your business run," explains Daniel Bookvar. "In-house lawyers document and solidify the relationships for your organization. These lawyers create contracts with suppliers, and contracts with customers, and contracts with the people who keep the lights on. The most technical transactions are always outsourced. If you think of your relationship with your doctors, the in-house counsel is like the general practitioner. He's the one with the close relationship with the patient, and he knows how the arm relates to the head and how the head relates to the neck bone, but he's not the guy you pull in for hand surgery."
The duties of an in-house attorney can vary greatly depending on the company and the position. Some lawyers with corporate law training end up managing litigation in addition to drafting and negotiating contracts and leases. "I get in between 9:00 and 9:30 and leave between 7:00 and 7:30," reports the in-house counsel of a New York media company. "As soon as I get in there's a phone call from a business person asking me to look at a document or asking me to help out with something. I'm constantly looking at documents, marking them up and having discussions with the business people about how long we want the term of sale to be, or how to establish pricing, or "Gee, does this really make sense given what you've told me?" I'm constantly on the phone, either with my own clients (the company's business or sales people) or with the other side. It's an incredibly interesting day."
For many attorneys, their jobs in the legal departments of corporations end up involving more than pure legal work. They also use an intuitive or acquired understanding of the business side of the company. It's often at in-house positions that an MBA or equivalent business training will prove most helpful.
The advantages of going in-house are many. Some lawyers set their own hours and can choose to work at home on occasion. Some must follow stricter schedules and be in the office between certain hours of the day. Many lawyers, particularly in smaller legal departments, feel a greater sense of autonomy than they did as associates at a law firm. Since the company has hand-picked them from large law firms, the company assumes these lawyers are already well-trained and do not need to have their work constantly reviewed. This independence can be a tremendous change for an attorney coming out of a large firm. Some have described it as feeling as though they're finally back in control of their lives. Many lawyers also thrive on the constant communication with the business people of the country. Every lawyer cites the freedom from billable hours. "The billable hour requirement," muses one in-house attorney, "just makes things worse. I think I've worked more hours straight through while in-house than while I was in a law firm. I think the pressure to constantly be billing hours in some ways slowed me down. Now I don't even think about it; I just get a lot of work done because I have a lot of different things that have to be done."
Another difference between practicing in a firm and working in-house is in the type of agreements in-house lawyers draft and negotiate. Companies aren't usually buying and selling each other every day, so in-house lawyers are no longer doing as much of the merger and acquisition work common to the training of a large law firm associate. Instead, they focus on what the company does on a daily basis, which could be selling a product or a service or pieces of real estate. In-house lawyers report that this work involves very different agreements and takes place at a completely different pace. Commercial law (the law of buying and selling goods and services) uses a more standard form contract and many of the discussions are around purely commercial terms -- such as the pricing, the quantity, and so on.