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Pathways to In-House Counsel (And the Ins and Outs of Working In-House)

Pervin Rusi Taleyarkhan and Madeline Obler


  • The article discusses different paths to in-house legal careers, as experienced by two attorneys, and emphasizes the varied nature of in-house counsel roles and the importance of networking for aspiring in-house attorneys.
  • One attorney transitioned from engineering to law school, initially securing a non-legal internship at Purdue University's technology commercialization office, which eventually led to an in-house legal role. 
  • The other attorney moved from a big law firm to an in-house counsel position, highlighting the challenges of going in-house, including handling various responsibilities, being the sole point of expertise, and the need for flexibility and autonomy. 
Pathways to In-House Counsel (And the Ins and Outs of Working In-House)
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While some attorneys begin their careers in private practice and then transition to in-house roles, others launch an in-house career immediately after graduating from law school. There is no perfect path for an attorney interested in an in-house career. Below, two attorneys discuss the paths that led them in-house and the role of an in-house attorney.

From In-House Internship to In-House Career

—Pervin Rusi Taleyarkhan

Most in-house counsel have served in private practice at some point in their careers, but some have both started and continued their legal practices in-house. My case is the latter.

From Engineer Grad to Law Student

During law school, law students seek to secure their summer clerkships or associateships, preferably before the close of the prior fall semester. For me, this was far from reality. I was a recent engineering graduate who decided to enter law school relatively late in the game. While most of my classmates’ resumes may have boasted pre-law school clerkships and observing monumental court hearings, all I could point to were years of working in pharmacy internships, shadowing physicians, and conducting technical research.

As the semester rolled on and I became increasingly aware I had no legal internship for the summer after my first year, I decided to revisit old contacts at Purdue University. Our college of chemical engineering had a treasured industrial advisor whose husband had just started a company associated with Purdue. He was kind enough to let me help in his business activities, and, as luck would have it, his new business associate was an attorney. In retrospect, the discussions I had with this attorney were what led me along the path to chart a new course for my legal career.

While I was looking for a summer internship, the Purdue Research Foundation (PRF), the licensing arm that manages Purdue’s property, had hired a new director of their Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC), which brings new technology from Purdue researchers into the hands of the public. After one coffee meeting, I received an invitation to apply for a marketing intern position in their office. While it was not a legal internship, I was grateful, nevertheless. I worked as hard as I could that summer and was fortunate to even work with the OTC’s in-house paralegal (there were no in-house attorneys at PRF at the time) to observe the patent acquisition process.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

The following fall, I returned to law school with renewed determination that my summer before my third year would be geared toward a legal internship. One evening during my patent prosecution class, I shared my past summer experiences working with OTC, and my professor shared that OTC had hired an in-house counsel. That evening I emailed OTC’s director asking if I could come back the following summer to work under their new in-house counsel. After one meeting with the in-house counsel, I secured a legal internship within the OTC, with this in-house counsel as my manager/mentor.

That following summer proved to be pivotal toward establishing my legal career. My manager missed hardcore intellectual property (IP) practice, and I needed a mentor in this area. We were both Purdue engineering graduates who knew the people and technologies in the field, and both wanted to practice IP law. Eventually, my manager asked if I would be willing to be the second in-house attorney with the university. Together we would establish a full-service IP legal practice within OTC. Although we have both moved on from OTC, the legal group within OTC is still going strong.

An Associate’s Journey from Big Law to In-House

—Madeline Obler

Shortly after I started as an associate at a Big Law firm, I attended a happy hour for another associate leaving the firm. Each time the departing associate said she was moving in-house, associates and partners responded with reverence, citing the perks she had to look forward to, like shorter hours, more flexibility, and a true work-life balance. Many law firm attorneys may see in-house positions as a legal utopia, where they can escape from the billable hour while still doing cutting-edge work.

I am not here to burst that bubble—in many ways, it is true. When I accepted a job as assistant general counsel to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) three years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn, but I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to anticipate. But working in-house presents unique challenges compared to a Big Law environment that takes getting used to, so while some of my assumptions were right, it is essential to understand what you are getting in return when you trade in your billable hours.

You May Not Have Law Firm Conveniences

One of the things I enjoyed most about working at a law firm was that, as the attorney, your work is the company’s value proposition. Internal meetings and calls were almost always brief and to the point to save time and allow you to get back to work. Do you need some equipment to make your job easier, like a bigger computer monitor or a printer? It’s there when you get back from lunch. Do you need thousands of pages printed and organized? It’s sitting on your desk in a few hours. Are you stuck on a research issue? Help is just a call away to the law firm librarian or research attorneys. In short, law firms do what they can to make an attorney’s life easier so the attorney can focus on what matters. After going in-house, I realized how much I had relied on those conveniences.

While not being beholden to the billable hour can be freeing, an in-house attorney has more to think about than just the work in front of them. In-house counsel is responsible for most aspects of their job. You—not an assistant—are responsible for calendaring your meetings and deadlines. You must attend meetings that cover what is relevant to your job and what is relevant to your organization. You make your own copies, prepare your own materials, and you do it with the resources at hand. I needed to adjust how I managed my time when I moved in-house because I had more to handle than just assignments and meeting hours. When you start an in-house counsel position, you should know there will be some grunt work, but that work is essential for learning your everyday client’s needs, inside and out.

You Are the Client

As an associate at a Big Law firm, you answer to someone, who likely answers to someone else, up the chain to the supervising partner and the client. While the path to the client may shorten as an associate rises in the ranks, there is almost always someone, whether it is a senior associate or a partner, who will review your work before it goes out the door. Even if this were not the case, you would likely have other attorneys that do similar work just a few doors down with whom you could discuss ideas and questions.

When you move in-house, you become, in essence, the entire chain. While I am surrounded by other brilliant lawyers at USCCB, I am the only tax lawyer. All things tax law–related land on my desk, and I am the only person in the office with the background to handle these issues. In many ways, this is empoweringI frequently set my own priorities and deadlines, but it can also be intimidating. Typically, no one micromanages every piece of work you produce, and everything you generate must be client-ready. You must make decisions and advise your client often without running it by anyone. When you are used to having at least a second set of eyes on all your work, it can be a frightening adjustment where you, and only you, are responsible for your output.

Compared with Law Firms, In-House Counsel Roles Are Anything but “Firm”

—Pervin Rusi Taleyarkhan and Madeline Obler

Legal counsels’ backgrounds can vary in breadth and depth, and there is no industry-wide metric for qualifying as a senior counsel versus an associate legal counsel. Titles for in-house legal counsels can vary from associate general counsel to assistant general counsel, to legal counsel, to associate legal counsel, and they may all be performing similar tasks for their respective organizations.

Even career paths within an organization’s legal department vary. An associate in a law firm usually can expect to be promoted to senior associate and then to partner or a similar type of position. In contrast, depending on the organization, an in-house counsel (e.g., associate counsel) practicing in the organization’s litigation department may expect to be either promoted (e.g., to senior counsel) from within the department or can be moved over to a compliance role or even a transactional role within the organization. While the nature of these types of moves varies, the one unifying rationale behind them will be the best way to serve the organization’s needs.

Meet the Client’s Needs Effectively and Efficiently

Private practitioners usually know what type of work product their client needs or what type of work is expected of them. By contrast, the typical work product of in-house counsel can vary significantly from their outside counsel (i.e., private practitioner) counterparts. One in-house counsel may be charged with conducting the same work as their outside counsel counterpart, the only difference being the in-house counsel is doing that work as an employee of the organization. For example, some in-house litigators are charged mainly with strategizing litigation and managing the work product of their outside counsel counterparts. In contrast, in-house litigators in another organization may prefer to take a more hands-on approach, sometimes even sitting first or second chair in court settings.

The reasoning for this approach may include: promoting cost-saving measures (in-house counsel typically don’t charge by the hour) and facilitating relevant work product from the strategy perspective (being internal to the organization can bring invaluable benefits that include intimate knowledge of the business and ease of access to internal organization resources that an outside counsel won’t have). Conversely, another in-house counsel may bring more value to the organization by having a seat at the table with other business leaders charged with decision-making on important value drivers impacting the business. With that knowledge and background, the in-house counsel is uniquely equipped to engage appropriate law firm(s) and oversee their work product.

Working outside Your Comfort Zone

A company can’t hire an in-house lawyer that can handle every legal issue the business encounters. While companies know this, they expect their in-house lawyers to be flexible and willing to expand their knowledge base beyond their area of expertise. When I started in-house, I expected to encounter areas of tax law with which I had minimal experience, but I did not expect to be asked to handle issues completely outside that sphere. However, in an in-house environment, you are presented with a broader set of issues and problems and are expected to know a bit of everything because you never know what may land on your desk.

As a Big Law associate, I thought that organizations hired outside counsel frequently to deal with myriad issues, large and small. Since going in-house, I learned that while companies hire outside counsel to deal with complex legal issues that in-house counsel may not be able to handle alone, there is a decided preference for in-house lawyers to handle as much as possible. This makes perfect sense: hiring outside counsel is usually expensive, and sometimes a response is needed more quickly than outside counsel can provide.

Working as in-house counsel is an excellent opportunity for a young lawyer to develop a wide range of skills. There will always be something an in-house lawyer needs to learn for the first time, and you must be confident that you can figure it out. You will hone your research skills and, over time, learn to absorb new information quickly. It is also an opportunity to think critically about many legal and business issues. It is tough to get bored when you see something new every day. If you are prepared to be flexible, adaptable, and autonomous, you will undoubtedly find your job rewarding.

Deciding If and When to Make the Move In-House

Against the above backdrop, it is no surprise that one’s path to becoming an in-house legal counsel can be circuitous, network-dependent, and will, therefore, most surely be unique from attorney to attorney. There is no perfect formula for entering the in-house arena, but networking and building professional relationships can be invaluable during the journey to an in-house role. Consider the following advice:

  1. Keep your network strong. Most of these positions are filled by word-of-mouth, so you never know who will help spread the word about your abilities. Keep in touch with your network, whether it is by offering to organize CLE events with them as speakers, coauthor articles, or organize roundtable events where you can all chat on topics of interest to the group.
  2. Keep your network in the know. No one will know your interests and abilities unless you make them known. Do not hesitate to keep your network in the know regarding your career ambitions or interests. Share (through word-of-mouth, email, and social media) your successes or other updates showcasing your expertise or abilities. You never know who is watching.
  3. Keep an open mind. While you may be comfortable in your current role, it never hurts to keep an open mind to make sure your current decisions are well-informed.
  4. Complete your assignments with the mindset that it will go directly to the client. It will lead you to check and double-check your work and, over time, will instill a level of confidence that takes law firm associates years to build. It is next to impossible to become complacent where your advice directly impacts your everyday client. When you understand that your advice and decisions can have far-reaching effects on your organization, it will drive you to really understand your company’s business and industry.