Community Perspectives: After moving in-house at a public tech company, I noticed the team is very understaffed. Is this normal for in-house?

In-house legal professionals talk about their expectations for a full-staff in-house department.

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Community Perspectives: After moving in-house at a public tech company, I noticed the team is very understaffed. Is this normal for in-house?

(Author) Associate

Hi Fish. I recently moved in-house to a newly-public tech company. The people are great, but the team is really understaffed. There are no paralegals or assistants - we are doing everything ourselves. Is this normal for in-house? I’ve been working close to BigLaw hours in addition to doing all the basic administrative work for the group. I’m seriously considering a return to BigLaw. Am I being crazy?

A couple notes:

  • I have five years of experience and the market seems fairly slow for corporate now, so if I went back to BigLaw, I might be able to get a 3-6 month ease-in period before it gets crazy again, but who knows.
  • I did negotiate a decent equity package when I joined and the compensation is at market value for in-house, but I'm so annoyed at this understaffing, I'm not sure if the equity is worth it. There is pretty good flexibility around taking doctor appointments/PTO but there is no real hours expectation. Emails will sometimes be sent at weird hours and sometimes responses are expected promptly.

General Counsel Responses:

  • This is so true for some in-house positions - especially in tech. I would verbalize your limitations and push off work that is not a priority. Leadership needs to fix the problem. What company is this?

  • It depends on what you want. Some people have the entrepreneurial bent, some don’t. I left BigLaw for real estate private equity, but I’m also a principal. From your post, it seems as if you’re perhaps not getting the upside if your company makes it. If you’re just salaried in-house counsel with no equity then you’re not crazy to go back to law firm life. But if you believe in the company and have a stake in it, then you might just be annoyed—which every lawyer is at some point. If the latter is the case, then moving back to BigLaw/staying at your current company is a calculation only you can make with respect to how you feel about the company. Will it pay off to stay? We always hear about the guy who sold his stake in Apple for $800. But we never hear about those who wasted time at a startup with nothing to show for it. Only you can make that assessment.

  • I certainly acknowledge that every situation and experience is different. I'm on my 3rd in-house gig (all Bay Area late stage tech), and I've definitely never been expected to take PTO or had any issues leaving in the middle of the day to go to an appointment or just run errands. You DO need to work to set your own boundaries - you're salaried and it's the very nature of the work to try and squeeze as much out of one salary as possible. But it shouldn't be too challenging to do that (I don't respond to emails or slacks that come in after like 3pm unless they come from certain leadership, if someone wants something turned around in an unreasonably short time period I'll say "turnaround time for this is usually 5 business days but I'll see what I can do to expedite"). OP - DEFINITELY take your PTO, that's what it's there for. It's best to create a short status document for your teammates so they can cover for you and start warning your internal clients like a month out so they can plan for your absence, but then you put up that out-of-office message and little palm tree in slack, and then GTFO - they'll sort themselves out. I always tell my boss they can call me if they need to - I'd rather take a ten minute phone call then return to an absolute disaster - but I've gotten that call maybe three times in eight years.

  • Did you know about this situation before you accepted? It seems quite common for a more nascent company (like a late-stage start-up/new public company).

  • This has not been my experience but I was warned that it could happen, especially if you’re the most junior person. To the extent you can, stop doing admin tasks for other people, stop organizing events, etc. Basically do what your job is and that’s it. Once people get accustomed to your extra labor they will resent you for setting boundaries.

  • You're not crazy. Lots of places are run this way and legal ops is just a buzzword. Others don't do this but I've seen this before among my colleagues.

Counsel Responses:

  • BigLaw hours require BigLaw dollars. Push back and establish realistic expectations based on a more normal 40-hour week. If you need support staff to accomplish this, absolutely let management know. Don't jump back to BigLaw. Most in-house positions are not like this.

  • I have been in-house for 14 months now for an extremely rapidly growing company and have had the same experience. I’m consistently over-worked, and it hasn’t slowed down once. I feel like at least at a firm you get the benefit of a billable hour bonus. I don't really have any real advice here, but just wanted to say I feel your pain, and it’s beyond frustrating.

  • This is not an uncommon situation in-house but there are definitely ways to set boundaries and manage this. Work on establishing some internal processes to triage intake of new requests, and require the business to set priorities as to where you allocate your time. Explore whether the business has some headcount that can cover some of the admin tasks you are currently doing- demonstrate that it is in their best interest to free up some of your time for higher value add work. Work on some templates and ways to streamline common contracts. Work on policies that say certain deals do not need legal review. Work on relationships with outside counsel to funnel overflow work as needed. More personally, protect your calendar and set time blocks where internal clients can’t plug meetings. Be firm about your schedule and being unavailable during certain hours. Ask yourself whether you are giving your internal clients GOOD turnaround, or EXCELLENT turnaround. Maybe you are going above and beyond to be responsive, and can train your clients to accept longer lead times. It sounds like the business is scaling quickly and there will be some growing pains to work through as you iron out processes and expectations with your clients as the business grows.

  • I’m in the same boat. We have a legal department of 1 and I was given a law library card. But I was a public defender for 10+ years so I’m used to not having any resources.

  • This has not been my experience.

  • It only works if you can prioritize and people understand you’ll get to their work when you get to it. If management doesn’t understand that, then it’s not sustainable.

  • I “clock in/clock out” when I want as no one is monitoring my hours (tech company). Some days I work 10-14 hours if I’m trying to move a bunch of deals off my plate, other days I work 3-4 hours and then decide nothing is urgent and spend the rest of the day with the family. It all balances out to a normal 9-5 with the freedom to shift my hours around as needed (provided the work always gets done). That said, I’m probably 25-30% underpaid for my title, and 100-125% underpaid considering we had two critical roles in legal and privacy leave and I’ve been picking up the slack for six months while the company looks for replacements. Since a significant raise is unlikely later this year after reviews, I’ll likely move on to another in-house role. For what it's worth, I truly enjoy the work and have not dreaded going to work a single day since going in-house. Outside of court days, I dreaded every day as a litigator. If your role is anything like mine, the one unexpected annoyance is the never-ending long-term projects. I did not anticipate being saddled with so many things that take months to complete, which means there is always something kind of hanging over my head. I don’t let that interfere with work/life balance, but part of my thought going in-house would legitimately mean there were times I would simply have nothing to do until the next contract needed to be negotiated. Perhaps that was naïve.

Attorney and Associate Responses:

  • Mid-size public company here, and this is absolutely true. There is next to no support staff. However, I still generally don't work more than 40-45 hours a week. If they don't provide support staff, it just means I can get less substantive legal stuff done.

  • While all in-house experiences are not like this, most are. I started my career in-house and decided to go into BigLaw for this reason.

  • I warn associates about this “in-house is better work/life balance” everyday. Sure, there are some in-house jobs that are a legitimately 40 hrs but they are not as plentiful as people think. People in those jobs aren’t leaving especially if the pay is solid. I’ve also found there to be a little less flexibility for most in-house gigs. They expect you in the seat and visible. Little things like doctor appointments sometimes require actually taking PTO hours. BigLaw is much more flexible in this respect. No one cares where you are or when you do it for the most part; just get the work done and be responsive. All this is to say, just know what you want and really understand what you are getting into. All in-house jobs are not the same. #grassisntalwaysgreener

  • It also depends on what level you come in at in some of these places.

  • This sounds pretty normal to me. I'm in SV, and have been in-house as the sole or junior corporate attorney. I've worked insane hours and burned out. I was exhausted. It's hard to delegate when there isn't anyone to delegate to (same for coverage). I will say that working with leaders to push back on some requests helps, as can using outside counsel more.

  • Is there still the expectation that you will work after hours to get things done? Or is it more like you do as much as you can within certain more reasonable hours?

  • This hasn’t been my experience but this sounds awful. I’m sorry OP!

  • You have to advocate for your department.

  • If you’re working the same number of hours, you might want to go back to the dark side.

In-house? Be a part of the conversation on Fishbowl (anonymous).