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Going In-House? Prepare for Culture Shock

by Ernest Schaal

Lawyers may change jobs with more ease these days, but one thing has stayed the same. You can expect some cultural shock if you are planning to move from private practice into an in-house position, or the other way around. I've worked in-house, been a solo practitioner and have worked in a Japanese law firm. Personally, the biggest culture shock came during my transition to solo practice. But believe me, moving in-house takes some adjustment as well.

The culture shock comes from the difference between the culture of a law firm and that of a law department. A law firm sets its own policies and defines its own culture.

A law department is part of a company and the company sets the policies and defines the culture. The difference manifests itself in many ways, including pay, overtime and computer support.

Compensation Factors

Lawyers who work in-house usually aren't rich, but they are comfortable. Companies spend much effort optimizing pay packages to keep them competitive in the marketplace for employees at the minimum cost. Because of this, the spread in pay for in-house attorneys is narrower than that for lawyers in general.

At the same time, pay in a corporation tends to be more stable. Being in private practice for me seemed a roller-coaster ride. Not only is pay in a law department more stable, the criteria for determining the pay is different. For a law firm, rainmaking and marketing are critical, but those factors are less important for a law department.

Networking and being active in bar groups aren't particularly important to law departments either. That explains why most bar group leaders come from private practice. It probably also explains why such groups have difficulty getting in-house attorneys actively involved as members.

For law departments, the important issues include legal competence, legal knowledge, knowledge of the industry, productivity, valuing diversity and teamwork. When I became a solo practitioner, I was shocked about how critical rainmaking and marketing suddenly became.

Overtime Expectations

One of the big benefits about working in-house is the corporate attitude toward overtime. Law firms often expect overtime on a routine basis, but law departments usually don't. With them, overtime is the exception rather than the rule. That makes in-house practice nice for those who value quality of life. But be warned, there are still some managers who do expect their in-house attorneys to work plenty of overtime.

Technology Use and Support.

While some law firms are on the cutting edge of computer technology, they are the exception. The legal profession has been one of the last to computerize and continues to lag behind many businesses. Companies large enough to have law departments usually are likely to keep their computer technology up-to-date, to have computer support staff on site to handle computer problems, and to have regular computer training programs for their employees. This is especially true for companies involved with technology or the sciences.

One downside of having computer support staff on site, though, is that they are less likely to tolerate noncompliant hardware being hooked up to their computer networks.

There are other differences, but it all boils down to the fact that the interests of law department work are subservient to the interests of the company as a whole. For example, I used to work in San Francisco and live in Marin County, but then my company decided to move elsewhere. It was a great decision for the company, but not for those of us in the law department who didn't want to move.

Having been active in the ABA Law Practice Management Section, I thought I knew what to expect. But there is a big difference between knowing something and actually experiencing it. Be prepared—it may take more time to adjust than you might think.

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