March 3, 2015 – A group of corporate attorneys agreed that working in-house can have both benefits and drawbacks compared to working for a firm during a panel discussion recently with University of Houston Law Center students.
The event on Feb. 25 was hosted by the Houston chapter of the Association for Corporate Counsel and moderated by Tara Kelly, litigation counsel for BP in Houston and an adjunct professor of contract negotiations at the Law Center.
Victor Wright, an associate general counsel for labor and employment at the energy firm TransCanada, said working in-house can give lawyers a more direct involvement in the workings of a business as opposed to serving as outside counsel.
“As in-house counsel, you have a lot more opportunity to work on cases as they’re percolating up,” he said. “When you’re external counsel, you basically just get the cases as they come to you.”
As an internal counsel, Wright said, a lawyer is able to offer business and other advice beyond just their legal expertise.
Celia Balli, senior litigation counsel at Houston-based engineering firm KBR, said many external lawyers who go into the corporate counsel side experience a kind of culture shock when they learn they are seen not as a revenue generator but an expense. But, Balli said, the positives of serving as an in-house counsel include a more flexible work schedule that makes it easier to lead a family life and do other things outside work.
Robert Collier is a co-founder and general counsel of Kudoru, Inc., a payments startup company, said working in-house gives lawyers a broader look at a business than being an outside counsel who focuses on narrow legal issues.
Jessica Roper, who works as a counsel in the legal department of Shell Oil Company, agreed.
“It’s really about being a business partner as opposed to the legal advisor they go to purely for legal advice,” she said. “I’ve found that I’m at the table while they’re making business decisions.”
Roper said working at a multinational company has allowed her to learn about many more aspects of the law and the business than she would have working at a large law firm, where associates often have a very specific set of duties.
Collier said that working in a technology startup offers a more relaxed company culture, including more casual attire, than working at a buttoned-down law firm.
Several of the panelists, however, said working as a corporate counsel also can be limiting in the sense of offering independence compared to working as a solo practitioner or at a small firm, since when a lawyer goes to work at a company, they have to “buy into” the company’s culture and values.