I'm a brand new attorney (passed the Feb 2021 bar) who started an in-house counsel position a few months ago (where my focus is negotiating agreements for the sale of my company's software). I was a contracts manager on an in-house team for 4 years prior, which is why I was able to go straight in-house. I'm entirely skipping out on firm life, which feels both good and bad. Is there anything I should think about getting experience in? How should I go about making sure I am seeing enough things?

I am not questioning my career choice - I'm surrounded by great attorneys and don't think of myself as a "lesser" attorney. I think it would be really cool to be a GC someday, and hope I get the opportunity to do so in the future. This was solely a professional development question with some background for context. Thank you to those who answered the question, your responses were helpful!

General Counsel and Head of Legal Responses:

  • I have been in-house since graduating from law school, negotiating big dollar agreements. My husband has been in litigation for the same amount of time. He knows far more about “law” than I do. I don’t even remember how to site a case anymore! You really do forget all of the “lawyer” stuff you learned, outside of compliance and a few regulations depending on the agreements you handle. But that’s expected, as you’re not practicing law, in that sense. But let me be clear, I’ve been much happier in my career than a lot of my attorney friends who work for firms. I say cheers to you, welcome to the in-house world, and don’t look back!
  • Hello and congrats on passing the bar! Let’s stop with the myth that only firms train lawyers or teach them substantive law. For the first 2 years of “practice” associates at Big Law perform doc review and write memos. Also, firms train SMEs which are very useful, but (maybe with litigation as the exception) ask an L&E attorney a tax or IP issue and she is going to pass you on to her colleagues. SMEs are why we hire OC, but I don’t think that means those attorneys have broad substantive practice. Oh and can we agree that citing case law is not practicing law? So, now let me try to be helpful. The best and easiest way for you as a commercial attorney to grow you substantive legal knowledge is to start with what you should know related to your transactions. You mentioned SW so let’s use that as an example and look easy places to grow: Copyright: important in SaaS contracts. If you company is big enough talk to your Trademark lawyers and ask them what’s important to protect in the agreement and why. IP/Licensing: again you can use your role as a commercial attorney as a reason to expand in these fields. Data Protection and Cyber Security: talk to your privacy folks! I used to work for a F100 that has 100s of lawyers. They were a wealth of “substantive” legal knowledge. There are a lot of other examples: before I left that large F100 We had a new grad join us and I provided her with a whole plan to help her grow outside her commercial role. Happy to elaborate in DM if you want. Good luck and congrats again!

Counsel Responses:

  • A career is what you make is it and what your goals are. There are a lot of need for commercial counsels right now. Once you get the experience you can get from your current role, use that and take your talent to another company. If you want to explore more, join a smaller team with a GC or head of legal that will loop you into other areas, depending on their needs.
  • There are certain roles that call for a licensed attorney but are really more like “JD advantage” roles that you don’t technically need to be a licensed experienced lawyer to do. An attorney who just makes status conference court appearances comes to mind, or a specialist non-attorney employee who defends a company against small claims matters. If you like what you do and make good money there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s a non-traditional niche path and that may make it harder to later go to a different niche or more generalized path. There’s nothing wrong with them, the only danger is that you may not develop other skills.
  • If all you want to do is commercial contracting supporting a sales function for the the rest of your career, your current path is ideal. Going to a tech trans group in a firm will give you broader experience and let you see high value stuff from clients who outsource their non-commodity contracting to firms.
  • I would try to pick up some other substantive knowledge (privacy + advertising counseling is a good fit and how i made jump to product counsel) just because commercial contracting is the most likely piece of in-house legal services to be seriously automated in the next 10 years. I am still skeptical it will replace lawyers in a meaningful way, but i figure eventually companies will have a hard time resisting trying to automate contracting even if it turns out to be a failure long term like most legal process outsourcing has.

Attorney and Associate Responses:

  • I don’t think these comments so far are super helpful to you. I think a career is what you make of it and you’ll be trained in the perspective you just noted. If you want more exposure, see if your team is willing to work with you to allow you to handle more and different responsibilities or to work more closely with the business teams. Just because they hired you to focus on this for the time being doesn’t mean that role can’t or won’t evolve. You can also start to network with other in-house attorneys (perhaps at your level) to see what else others are doing so you can get an idea on how your role can expand (assuming the company allows you to do so). If not you can always change companies after some experience.
  • I’m a transactional lawyer who also can’t cite a case for my life - been in firms for seven years and have cited cases maybe a handful of times in the past five years.
  • I think this is just a matter of being a transactional lawyer. I’m in BigLaw but also don’t do litigation / legal research.
  • I hope to get there someday. II hate law firm life.
  • Firms are built to train lawyers. Id be worried about missing a lot of substantive law training personally.
  • I'll echo what others have said--it totally depends on what you want out of your career. I'm currently at a firm, and from what I've been able to glean, whatever "training" I'll get is not going to be all that helpful for the in-house roles I want. I wouldn't sweat it. Most people on this app were at a firm and so they're going to tell you that firm training is good, but it all really just depends. It's very possible to get terrible training at a firm and to ingrain a lot of really bad habits.
  • You will learn tons as a commercial counsel and be critical to your company's growth. I'd sign up for any classes on privacy/data transfers/Schrems II, negotiation, and Laura Fredrickson's How to Contract Conference is in January. Lots of people are (highly skilled) commercial counsel. You don't need to feel "less than" because you didn't go to a firm or aren't in a courtroom.


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