Corporate lawyers never seem to get a break in the headlines

Last week alone, the Securities Exchange Commission announced a series of allegations against both companies and lawyers: Johnson & Johnson for bribery; GunnAllen Financial, Inc. for failing to protect confidential customer information; and attorney Matthew H. Fruger for illegal insider trading while employed by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. And who could forget the recent media assault on actions by corporate lawyers for Chevron and Goldman Sachs?

This offers a glimpse into the challenges of practicing as corporate lawyers, who must shoulder the burden of not only meeting expectations of their companies or clients but also meeting expectations of the consumers.

“If you’re an in-house attorney, you constantly have to be cognizant that you are an ambassador for that company,” says Linda E. Lu, a senior attorney for Allstate and located in Chicago, Illinois.  “You have to think about what’s best for the consumer, and what is going to promote the company’s brand and product in the community. For example, when I am in court or at the grocery store, I am always trying to promote the reputation of the company. I try to let others know that Allstate is made of people like you and me, your neighbors, and family members. We’re just people, too.”

The practice itself can be all-encompassing and challenging. 

Corporate lawyers typically consider themselves to be of two categories: those who work at a law firm and engage in corporate transactional work, or those who work as in-house counsel at a corporation, explains Lu.

“The interest of a corporate lawyer working for a law firm might be to the firm and to their clients, and [those interests] might be conflicting at times; whereas, when you’re in-house, your loyalty is singular – it’s to the company,” says Lu, who became in-house counsel after more than 10 years litigating at a private law firm.

Lu’s role as an in-house attorney for a major corporation is more akin to being part of the business team, on which she is not only counseling others about the law but also giving advice on business strategy, marketing plans, how to serve her company’s consumers, how to sell the company’s products, how to increase market share, or how to develop the best policies. 

“Our job as in-house counsel is not only to give the best legal advice, but also to partner with the business to help the company grow,” says Lu.

“The required skill set is even more diverse,” she says. “We not only have to be business people but also have to be lawyers.”

Lu’s typical day entails sitting through approximately 10 to 15 meetings a day, listening to business partners or other attorneys, and helping solve problems. She may hear about particular problems the company is experiencing, counsel company employees on product development, review drafts of company communications and bulletins, or provide input on marketing strategies. Being part of the company allows for a more holistic approach compared to a firm attorney who may only have been retained by the company for a single issue or project, says Lu. Plus, good-bye to the chore of billable hours.

In-house counsel positions are very appealing, but getting there isn’t easy.

"Most companies do not hire directly out of law school," says Lu. Most companies do not have the resources to train and most want someone who is well-versed in a specialty, according to Lu.

“Most companies want lawyers who have been at law firms for a few years who have the fundamental training,” says Lu. 

Additionally, Lu suggests taking business-related courses such as business law, contracts, and real estate, as well as gaining job experience that builds a knowledge base akin to a minor in business. Finally, seek to stand out from other job applicants.