The Five Most Significant In-house Trends of the Last 10 Years: Respect – Corporate Counsel Come Into Their Own

by Steven Anderson

Corporate Legal Times — October 2001

The legal department is a far cry from where it was in the fall of 1991.  Since Corporate Legal Times debuted, in-house counsel have steadily grown smarter, faster, more sophisticated, better paid and enmeshed in business operations like never before.  We like to think Corporate Legal Times had a little something to do with that.  As we look back on our first 10 years, the big trends are unmistakable.  What's surprising is the way most important developments - from technology to diversity and globalization - are interrelated.

Any last lingering vestige of an in-house inferiority complex has been obliterated by the confluence of a boom economy, the increasing sophistication of companies and the ever-deepening mire of law firm practice.  Today's corporate counsel generally make as much or more than their private counterparts, increasingly do more interesting work and still don't have to keep timesheets.

"Ten years ago, you wouldn't have made the bet that the majority of corporate attorneys in the country would consider working in-house," says Aaron Williams, president of Aaron Consulting, a nationwide attorney search firm in St. Louis.  "Now you make that bet, and the only question is when in their careers will they consider jumping ship to the client side of a legal career.  The more business-like their personality, the more likely they are to jump sooner in their career path.  "Lawyers" feel comfortable being with other lawyers, whereas in-house counsel types appreciate the daily contact with a wider variety of people and personalities."

Williams says that a decade ago, there were still misconceptions that made it difficult to get lawyers to consider going from a law firm to a company.

"You could never make any money working for a company; the hours were dramatically lower; the work quality was dramatically lower; and the people you would be working with were substandard."

One by one those perceptions have evaporated.  In-house compensation rose significantly throughout the 1990's, and with stock options and other bonuses, now often exceeds that of law firm total salaries.

"Your chances of making a half-million or more dollars in additional compensation in a year in a law firm are pretty slim," says Williams.  "Your chances of doing that in a corporate setting are much better, depending on whom you're working for.

"In-house counsel have also become smarter about how to attract quality lawyers to their legal department."

Management in general has become more effective over the last decade.  Companies are looking for more efficiency and effectiveness from every function.  As a result, lawyers aren't just viewed as an expense anymore; they are people who can help generate revenue, who can help come up with the best business strategies.  The smartest companies have integrated lawyers into the business process.

But that means there's more work to do.  Any notion of an easy 9-5 lifestyle is long since gone.  

"The number of hours and intensity lawyers work in-house is no different than in most law firms," says Kelly of Sears.  "There are some differences.  You don't have to find business, kill what you eat.  You don't have to bill hours.  But there's just as much work."  Kelly says in-house lawyers battle for respect has been waged on two fronts.

"Ten years ago, most law departments were looked at as necessary evils by businesspeople - places where they had to get approval, gatekeepers.  From the perspective of law firms, legal departments were looked upon as places where you ended up if you couldn't make it in the outside world."

Although corporate counsel have gained respect within the legal profession, fully meeting that goal within the business world will take longer, she says.

"Our clients for years viewed in-house lawyers as gatekeepers.  It takes a long time to convince them you really are there to help.  We're making great strides in partnering with our clients, but we still have a ways to go."