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In-house Access Insight & Commentary for In-House Counsel Worldwide

The Many Paths to In-house Practice

Posted in Career

Guest Blogger: Tiffani Alexander is managing editor of the ACC Docket, the award-winning journal of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). She earned her BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has a MA in Arts, Entertainment & Media Management from Columbia College Chicago. Tiffani can be contacted at Alexander@acc.com.

On Thursday, July 11, ACC hosted 25 students currently enrolled in JD programs in the DC area at its national office. The students gathered for a panel discussion, moderated by ACC President and CEO Veta T. Richardson, titled “Inside Access to In-house Counsel,” where they were exposed to the not-so-typical role of in-house counsel.

Students were treated to an open dialogue about what to expect as an in-house counsel, as well as advice on how to go about “planning” their legal career path.

“Be prepared that your path may not be linear,” said Louise Nelson, senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Hilton Worldwide. The idea that it is almost impossible to plan out your entire legal career after law school was echoed by all of the panelists, including Justin Conner, senior counsel at Spacenet. Conner urged the students to “think of your career in a long-term perspective,” emphasizing that varying opportunities will come about along the way that simply can’t be planned for. “It’s great to have a plan and a vision,” said Ona Alston Dosunmu, general counsel at The Brookings Institution. “But remain flexible and open to the possibilities that present themselves.”

Many of the panelists admitted that a life as in-house counsel was not on their radar during law school, and referred to their entrance into in-house practice as non-traditional. While Richardson, who started her legal career in-house, admitted to wanting to be a corporate attorney since high school (an admission she even called weird), her advice held the same sentiment: “If being in-hose counsel is something you really want to do, you may have to take a different path.”

Other advice offered to the students included the importance of taking a business course. “Being able to advise on the legal side and understand [the client’s] business will make you a more valuable lawyer,” said Rob Falk, general counsel at Human Right’s Campaign. In addition, Conner — whose company is an international telecom — pointed out that knowledge of how business is conducted in other countries is a plus for young attorneys seeking in-house positions.

The idea of in-house counsel being seen as a partner to the business, as well as the “client” being those business partners you “live with” every day, were just a couple of the differences cited between life in-house versus at a firm. “It’s a collaborative environment in business,” said Edward T. Paulis III, vice president and assistant general counsel at Zurich.

The sentiment that in-house practice involves working collaboratively with others, as well as the ability to break down complex legal matters into “executive summaries” that show an understanding of how your legal advice will benefit the business as a whole, was also stressed by the panel. Nelson told the students to remember that when you’re working in-house, you’re not talking to other lawyers on a daily basis — you’re talking to business people who speak another language.

Other insights into life as in-house counsel included the fact that no two days will be the same. “There isn’t a typical day; every day is different,” said Sam Shapiro, assistant general counsel at Pepco Holdings, Inc. Like other members of the panel, Shapiro indicated that being flexible is needed in-house. However, he went on to say that while in-house counsel are not tied to the billable hour like firm attorneys, with the variety of tasks coming to your desk, “time management is key.”

When asked to offer the students some parting words of advice, Shapiro said to “do what you like, but at the same time, keep your mind open,” while Nelson added “learn to like what you do.” Dosunmu told the students to “be pleasant and foster nice relationships,” which was echoed by Conner who said to “network very broadly, keep in touch and keep your network active.” Paulis informed students that earning their law degree would not be the culmination of their studies. “Be a lifetime learner,” he said.

While the panel had varying opinions on entering in-house practice straight out of law school versus spending a few years at a firm, their openness about the pros and cons of each option was valuable. Jessica DiPietro, a 3L student at American University, said that she appreciated the honesty and candidness of the panel. “I attend panels all the time; it was nice to get the perspective of people really trying to be helpful.”

The students also appreciated the straightforward, real-life advice. “I thought the panel discussion was very practical,” said 2L Howard Law School student Dominique Wales. “Everything discussed can be applied to other aspects of your career.”

A law degree opens up many paths, and the future lawyers in attendance were reminded that with all the growth and change within the legal, business, government and nonprofit sectors (as well as others), the opportunities are endless. More important, they have the flexibility to change their minds.

“Your first job out of law school is not the be all and end all,” emphasized Richardson. “It’s an opportunity to gain experience — experience that will better inform your next job.”