Toto, We Are Not at a Law Firm Anymore!
by Jennifer Rodriguez
Someone once asked me why, given the usual difference in pay scale, a lawyer would choose to work in a corporate environment versus in a law firm. The question ended with “...is it because it’s easier?” I had to control my urge to laugh, but then I wondered if that is the general perception about corporate (in-house) lawyers. Working in a corporation versus at a firm is absolutely not easier. Nor is it harder. It is just…different.
I firmly believe that while we can each make a choice as to how we choose to practice, some lawyers are better suited to corporate work. While there are certain aspects of corporate work that necessarily correlate to law firm work (litigation management is one example), the biggest difference is the practical nature of the guidance. The question often posed to outside counsel is “can we do this?” while the corporate lawyer is more often faced with “how can we do this?” Therefore, the advice can be quite different.
It is true that the corporate lawyer has a bit of an advantage here. Outside counsel is generally only presented with a succinct set of facts and it can be difficult to plot a course of action when you are not privy to the strategic end-goal. Conversely, much of a corporate lawyer’s day can be consumed with meetings to discuss new initiatives or plans for growth (or downsizing, for that matter). The information, debate and ideas shared in those meetings often give the corporate lawyer the knowledge base necessary to form that practical guidance.
The difficulty, however, is, that as hard as corporate counsel might try, it is a challenge to overcome the stereotype that the legal department is a bottleneck or the “Sales Prevention Department.” The legal department is generally not a profit center, and many people in the corporate world have had limited, if any, exposure to lawyers in general. Those two facts can result in the department being viewed as a “necessary evil.” That challenge, however, can be met through partnership and creative thinking.
Because corporate lawyers serve the same internal clients repeatedly, there is a greater opportunity to form relationships. Back-to-back meetings can be exhausting, but they can also be very productive when learning about your client’s needs and approach. It is then the corporate lawyer’s job to analyze the risks associated with various tactics and to suggest ways in which to meet the overall goal with less risk. Asking “what if we try this?” becomes a regular part of strategic planning. As such—and this may be surprising to some—it is really quite rare that an in-house lawyer will say “no” to their internal clients. Business partnership builds trust. Thus, in the rare instance that the corporate lawyer must say “no,” business partners can trust that the advice is sound rather than assuming that the legal department is standing in the way of progress.
Serving as corporate counsel may seem overwhelming, but it can also be a very satisfying way to see how the legal piece is interwoven throughout the business puzzle. Building a practice in a corporate setting is a career path which is certainly not one-size-fits-all. Many of my friends are long-term law firm lawyers who look at my career and wonder how I do what I do. And the same is true in reverse. We are all good lawyers in our own right, but we bring very distinctive skills to the table. It’s not easier or harder, or better or worse. It’s just different.
Jennifer Rodriguez is Vice President and General Counsel for The LaSalle Group, Inc./Constant Care Family Management. She can be reached at email@example.com.