Community Perspectives: In terms of quality of life and workplace happiness, is there a discernible difference between in-house in BigCorp and smaller private companies?

In-house legal professionals talk about their experience with quality of life in in-house positions with BigCorp vs. smaller companies.

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Community Perspectives: In terms of quality of life and workplace happiness, is there a discernible difference between in-house in BigCorp and smaller private companies?
General Counsel and Director Responses:
  • Not everywhere will have the same level of dysfunction, but I think in general as companies get larger and older, these things tend to happen. Smaller companies are almost certainly more nimble in terms of tackling issues quickly, but at the same time because of resource constraints there are plenty of issues that won’t get tackled at all (whether because they are low priority or simply because no one recognizes there is a problem).
  • I'm working in-house at a small company, and I can tell you there's still lots of politics and bureaucracy. In my opinion, I’d say even more than the Fortune 600 company I was at previously. A smaller fishbowl = rampant cannibalism.
  • I’m at a small growing public company. We operate “lean” which leads to a lot of the same day-to-day challenges, at least as far as resources go. My current company is not very political.
  • Before I went to law school I worked at a very large corporation in a non legal capacity. One of the Fortune 50. There was a tremendous amount of politics and favoritism. God forgive me, but I honestly found law firm life a little refreshing, at least from the standpoint that at an elite law firm you could be really charming, but if you couldn’t hack it with the documents, the work would just bury you and you would wash out. I'm in-house at a fund now where everyone is obsessed with making money and their returns, but at least I know exactly what people care about and how to find the way to their hearts. I can’t say I’d never work at a big corporation again, but would have reservations.

Counsel Responses:

  • You can’t have capitalism without politics and poor allocation of resources. Collect the money and enjoy the ride, or go to a non-profit which will inevitably have the same issues, but at least you can try and change the world. 
  • I agree that it is BigCorp life. Everything is done in the pursuit of profits; sound processes and legal input be damned. As you say, it is entirely too reactive. I've been at an F100 for 5+ years now, and the control (and frankly, the money) given to the business people is astonishing. Every process has an exception, every business unit thinks they're the only one, and they'll ignore you at the drop of a hat. It's really making a law-adjacent business role look attractive, since BigLaw has its own woes.
  • Potentially. My company has plenty of lawyers who don't do law, but they service legal clients or hock legal products. But there are also roles where you give non-legal advice input. I know someone who works for a tech company that has a product analyzing contracts, and this ex-lawyer works with the IT folks to give it specific terms and phrases to look for. I am a lawyer because I honestly enjoy the law and its intricacies, but I work for money, so I could have way more quality of life and make more cash by not being a lawyer. I just don't need to be anxious all the time as the business folks print money.
  • Some companies have more adversarial internal politics than others, but yes I think that internal politics is always a part of the in-house work environment even at smaller companies. Learning to navigate this world can help your in-house career trajectory in the long term. For what it's worth, I also think that there are internal politics in the law firm environment as well; it’s just different issues.
  • I felt your post. I too, am at a Fortune 50 and agree with the issues you raised.
  • Are you me? I’m at a smaller publicly traded company. The politicking is stunning, and it’s difficult for me personally as I’m a natural problem solver, not a natural game player. I don’t think company size is necessarily the deciding factor here.
  • From my perspective, it all starts at the top. Until you’ve advanced high enough to have authority/responsibility to implement proactive processes and procedures, you’re probably stuck in the reactive/whack-a-mole world. My advice: find the attorneys higher up than you who also want to be proactive and process-driven, and do whatever you can to work with them. They have vision and are more likely to advance than their reactive peers, and when that happens, they’ll want you on their team.
  • I think it’s a corporate culture/mindset thing. The right people have to be picking priorities and allocating resources, regardless of company size.
  • I’d suggest maybe checking with the worst offenders to start and ask them if they don’t have the bandwidth for the project or if there’s a better time you can send your emails to facilitate quicker responses. But if you don’t have any other reason to believe they just don’t care, I beg you to not assume they aren’t working their butts off and doing the best they can!
  • I would have absolutely agreed with all the sentiments in the responses (or even acknowledgment) a year ago, before I started my current role at my current company. However, within a month I became one of those people and I hate myself for it and am ashamed. At the same time, though, I see now what it looks like to really not be able to get to everything and constantly get pulled into a different call or discussion every time you start addressing your emails (and I am not one to send faux acknowledgments. I don’t want to tell you I’ve seen and reviewed the email if I haven’t, and stopping to tell every single person I see your email but haven’t read it and will provide a substantive response “ASAP” (aka anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks), simply takes away from me being able to actually ever get freaking work done. I don’t think it’s okay that I am slow to respond, so I don’t say this to imply it’s not a problem, but I have grown much more patient with other people who may also be dealing with a chaotic work environment with no structure, no best practices for emails and meetings, and no clear direction of priorities. I may get emails asking for feedback on something that is literally the least urgent thing for most of us juggling everything and doesn’t need a response for weeks to meet deadlines. The person sending the email only has that one thing they’re working on and they don’t realize they’re sending that question during a week with multiple product launches and contract execution “deadlines” and such, and if I were to clear out my inbox/reply to everything each day per my personal preference (or at least every other day), I would have to add even more hours to my already 12-14 hour days and produce less. It’s easy to say “it just takes thirty seconds/how hard is it to just tell me you got the email” (I know I’ve said it 100s of times!), but those minutes add up and your email is probably not the only one they need to get to/only “just thirty seconds” task on their list. These people may just be irresponsible and bad with communication (a problem I believe leadership is responsible for fixing via training, reminders of company-wide best practices, directives/SLAs, and leading by example), but to play devil’s advocate: is it possible they may literally be buried and overwhelmed and just trying to stay above water and they really are responding as soon as they can?

Attorney and Associate Responses:

  • I'm currently on a secondment to a large company and I can’t agree more about the bureaucracy and the politics.
  • Welcome to in-house. The grass isn’t always greener. I’m in-house and love it. You just have to find the right fit.
  • You would deal with similar issues as a partner in a firm. That's corporate America for ya!
  • I'm certainly not fully able to comment on this since I've only been in house for 3-4 years (only at legal counsel levels), but I have worked at three companies (two massive, one small, one of those just for a 6-month secondment), and from what I can tell that's pretty much standard once you hit a certain level of seniority. Politics, budgeting, compliance issues. Each company treats their legal department with differing levels of importance and respect, and for some, the General Counsel may not have a direct line to senior management, which creates issues in trying to bring about actual change.
  • Why the capitalist bashing I see here? Sure, it ain't perfect but it's not like Communist countries don't have political infighting and poor allocation of resources, too.
  • What would be a law adjacent business role? Contracts and compliance?
  • I work at a smaller, but still fair-sized publicly traded company (say F700) and the bureaucracy is almost shocking. I’m a transactional lawyer who handles mostly large and sophisticated deals. Probably the most shocking thing to me is how long it takes for people to even get back to me on things. Not uncommon for it to take people days or sometimes more than a week to reply to an email (and even that often requires follow-up), which of course means that getting substantive responses on deal-gating issues in a reasonable timeframe is nearly impossible. Often that includes some of the other 35-40 lawyers in the legal department.
  • I completely agree, it was almost like culture shock coming from BigLaw. I had to convince people to do their jobs.
  • Seriously. At first I thought that maybe my expectations were unreasonable because I worked as outside counsel for 20 years and was conditioned to being hyper-responsive. But seriously, how do you not even acknowledge receipt of an email for over a week while still making any kind of claim as to professionalism?



In-house? Join the conversation on Fishbowl (anonymous).