5 Takeaways from My In-House Legal Internship

5 Takeaways from my In-House Legal InternshipThis week we welcome back guest writer Tiffany Lo to talk about her experience at an in-house internship over the summer.

Over the summer, I had the great fortune of working as an in-house legal intern at a multinational computer software company. With this opportunity, I made it a priority to understand what it means to be an in-house lawyer, especially in contrast to working in private practice.

Here are some of the lessons I learned through shadowing and chatting with in-house lawyers:

1. What the legal department looks like varies among companies

It should come as no surprise that each organization structures its legal team in a unique way. Thus, in-house lawyers who hold the same title at different companies may have drastically different experiences. At a startup company, an in-house counsel is more likely to be a generalist, working on a wide variety of matters such as contracts, employment issues, and government and regulatory affairs. At a large, established company, a lawyer may be assigned to work on a particular legal area or on specific product features. Of course, there is plenty of middle ground, where an attorney could be handling matters in a few practice areas.

The important thing for anyone looking to go in-house is to really understand what they want to do and learn at a company, and then assess whether the structure and culture of a particular legal department create a good fit for those goals.

2. In-house opportunities are more limited for litigators than for transactional lawyers

Attorneys who have practiced in areas such as mergers and acquisitions, finance, tax, securities, and real estate transition more easily to an in-house role. Thus, deal lawyers tend to have an easier time seeking and getting in-house offers.

In-house litigation positions are rarer, though some larger companies do hire litigators experienced in practices like antitrust, intellectual property, commercial disputes, etc. During my internship, I also observed how an in-house litigation counsel performs very different functions than outside counsel. In-house counsel do not draft briefs or argue in front of the court—those belong to the domain of the lawyers at the firm the company hired. Instead, the in-house lawyer conducts internal investigations to unearth relevant facts, directs the strategy of the case, and offers feedback on mock oral arguments or document drafts. As one attorney put it to me, in-house litigators think more “big-picture,” always considering the company’s interests.

3. Having only one client makes a huge difference

The major differences between in-house and outside counsel roles arise from the fact that in-house lawyers work for one client—their company, while outside counsel juggle several. Some lawyers whom I talked to loved that their client remained the same, as they can dig deeper into the business model, the trends and challenges of a particular industry, and the intersection between business and law. Many of these lawyers also described themselves as business-oriented or entrepreneurial, and that they enjoy helping the company grow through anticipating and minimizing legal risk. On the other hand, some reminisced about working for different client and learning about a variety of industries, or noted that their formal colleagues had returned to firm life because of this.

My takeaway was that going in-house allows a lawyer to focus more on business decisions. I also noticed that many attorneys, as they moved up the ranks to a supervisory role, took on new responsibilities involving people management and company operations. Stephanie Zaremba’s blog post shares her experience transitioning from a legal position to a business operations and strategy role at her company.

4. In-house counsel often interact with non-legal teams and personnel

Cross-functional collaboration is a big part of the in-house lawyer experience. This was a constant theme as I worked with people in different legal departments. Because it is crucial to reduce the company’s legal exposure by ensuring compliance with laws and regulations, attorneys regularly educate non-legal teams in the company, such as the sales team, the engineers, and the marketing department. They do so by maintaining internal playbooks and guidance documents, sending out email newsletters, giving trainings, and doing one-on-one follow up and accountability checks. In addition, attorneys assigned to support certain products would sit in on meetings and “issue spot,” in an effort to make sure a product feature or marketing decision does not trip any legal alarm bells.

Some attorneys expressed strong enthusiasm for this aspect of their work. They enjoy spotting potential issues, brainstorming solutions, and learning about new technologies or strategies along the way.

5. In-house work is demanding

Although in-house lawyers are generally happier than law firm associates and partners, the work is no less taxing. Attorneys shared with me that late nights and long hours remain facts of life for them, especially during busy seasons at the company. Despite this, they still enjoy their gig better than private practice for other reasons: the stimulating nature of the work and the ability to collaborate with non-lawyers, the lack of need to track billable hours, the relatively more predictable schedules, the culture and mission of the company, and the stronger emphasis on business management and stratey.

Want to learn more about the path to an in-house career? This article discusses how you can become an in-house attorney, whether you are hoping to join a company out of law school or after some years at a firm. And check out this post for things you can do as a law student to go in-house immediately after graduation!


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About Tiffany Gee Ching Lo

Tiffany Gee Ching Lo is a student at Stanford Law School. She spent her 1L year at the New York University School of Law, where she was involved with Alternative Breaks, Women of Color Collective, and Law Revue, and worked as research assistant. Tiffany received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, graduating magna cum laude with double majors in Political Science and Rhetoric. Tiffany developed an interest in the law from a young age, and have worked in law firms and courthouses in Hong Kong–where she grew up, around the San Francisco Bay Area, and in New York. In her spare time, Tiffany enjoys painting, playing the piano and cello, trying out new recipes, and watching late night talk shows.

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