Monday, January 21, 2008

An Attorney’s Transition from Private Practice to In-House Counsel

In a recent article in Law.com, Todd King describes his transition from private practice to in-house counsel.

Following a two-year clerkship, Mr. King worked for six years at Jones, Day in Atlanta. The opposing party in one of his cases was The Schwan Food Co. After getting to know Mr. King through his representation of their adversary, Schwan hired King as an in-house division counsel. Mr. King experienced two challenges in transitioning to in-house work: (1) being exposed to a number of different issues involving different areas within Schwan – such as marketing, sales, and logistics; and (2) balancing the need to add value to his in-house clients (thereby earning their trust) while maintaining the discipline to push back on ideas or initiatives that involve undue legal risk.

I faced challenges similar to Mr. King when I transitioned from private practice to in-house work. It is precisely because of these challenges that I recommend an in-house experience to private practitioners that represent corporate clients. An in-house experience offers robust development opportunities in three areas critical to effectively representing coporate clients.

First, attorneys with in-house experience tend to understand markets and industries in much more fundamental ways than attorneys who have spent a career in private practice. Corporate clients would almost certainly be shocked if they knew how many strategic decisions critical to a matter – from the scope of discovery (or due diligence) to understanding all the facts that need to be developed or presented in advocating on behalf of a corporation – are made by private practitioners without a fundamental understanding of the markets/industry at issue.

Second, unlike private practitioners, in-house attorneys face a unique challenge: the constant need for simplicity. To be effective, in-house attorneys must make very complex legal issues simple and easy for a lay-person to understand. Twenty-page legal memos summarizing fifty years of precedent are much less valued than a two-page memo that addresses an issue succinctly based on the current state of the law. A two hour oral presentation summarizing complex rules and regulations is much less valued than a thirty-minute presentation cutting to the core of an issue. Brevity and simplicity are critical, just as they are in framing issues for a judge and jury.

Finally, an effective in-house counsel must be collaborative. While an in-house counsel has a number of opportunities to work collaboratively within cross functional teams to develop solutions that minimize legal risk, private practitioners have very few opportunities to experience this type of collaboration. As a result, relative to attorneys with in-house experience, attorneys from private practice tend to have more difficulty engaging and relating to senior executives who expect multi-disciplinary collaboration in addressing issues.

 

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