The Ins and Outs of Working in a Corporate Legal Department

What It's Like Working in Private Industry

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Private industry encompasses any organization, other than a law firm, that operates for commercial profit. Corporations, banks, insurance companies, real estate firms, hospitals, title firms, and other organizations make up private industry. Private industry is the second largest employment setting for attorneys and other legal personnel, after private practice, and employs eight percent of practicing lawyers, according to the American Bar Foundation’s "Lawyer Statistical Report".

Size and Structure

Many companies have their own in-house legal departments which vary in size from a single attorney to hundreds of legal personnel including attorneys, paralegals, legal secretaries, and litigation support personnel. Most corporate legal departments operate under the direction of a general counsel who manages corporate attorneys (called in-house counsel) and other legal staff.

Depending on the size of the corporation and the complexity of its operations, corporate legal departments may consist of several sub-departments that focus on a particular legal specialty. Common legal departments within a corporation include general litigation, mergers and acquisitions, general corporate law, intellectual property, asbestos litigation, corporate compliance, and real estate.

Cost Centers v. Profit Centers

Unlike law firms, which operate as revenue-raising profit centers, corporate legal departments are cost centers, spending corporate dollars to defend lawsuits filed against the company, negotiate business transactions and perform a wide range of legal services on behalf of the parent corporation and its business entities.

Since corporations operate as cost centers, the emphasis is not on billing hours, although some corporations require legal personnel to track their hours for a number of purposes. Rather than billable hours, the focus of in-house counsel is to effectively service the corporation’s legal needs in a manner that least infringes on the bottom line.

Since corporate legal departments are not focused on billing hours and raising revenue, in-house legal staff, on the whole, work fewer hours than law firm employees. However, corporate legal work, especially during a trial or a document-intensive transaction such as a merger or real estate acquisition, may still entail busy periods that require long work days.

Corporate Operations vs. Law Firm Operations

Working in-house differs from law firm employment in a number of significant ways. First, while a law firm’s success depends upon serving a wide range of clients (the more, the better), in-house attorneys serve only one “client,” the corporation.

Second, the primary role of in-house attorneys, paralegals, and other legal personnel is managing outside counsel. Some corporations, particularly those with small in-house staffs, perform little actual legal work in-house, preferring to delegate substantive legal tasks to an approved list of local counsel. Larger corporate legal departments, particularly those seeking to reduce outside counsel fees (which can range in the millions annually), perform almost all of the substantive legal work in-house.

Corporate Employment Outlook

Opportunities for in-house lawyers and paralegals are growing according to Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal, a national legal staffing agency. “Opportunities are increasing and will remain abundant in the coming years,” says Volkert. Volkert attributes the growth of in-house legal employment to a top-down attempt to build company infrastructure to handle increased workloads. “With that comes the hiring of full-time attorneys and paralegals as well as project legal staff during litigation peaks and document intensive transactions,” states Volkert.

The hottest legal specialties for in-house counsel and paralegals are regulatory compliance, real estate, complex litigation, corporate law, and intellectual property, according to Volkert.

Salaries and Benefits

According to the Robert Half Legal Salary Guide, salaries are increasing for in-house legal personnel. Attorneys and paralegals with several years’ experience will have the most employment opportunities, Volkert says.

Benefits and perks offered by private industries are also on the rise. Some corporations provide stock options for all employees or for individuals within a certain professional segment of the company. Stock options are becoming a larger part of the compensation package of high-level legal management in an effort to tie compensation to company performance.

Volkert also reports an increased focus on the quality of life benefits such as health club memberships, flex-time, and telecommuting. Some corporate employers also grant their employees certain perks inherent in the industry. For example, some car manufacturers give employees a car for personal use, software manufacturers may provide free soda and airlines may award free air miles to employees.