BY ANNA BROOK
As part of the World of Law series, OCS and OPIA held a session exploring in-house counsel last week. Pound 107 filled up with students eager to learn about what this career path offers and how to become in-house counsel.
To introduce the panelists and answer one of the main questions, moderator Ginny Greiman began by asking the participants to speak about their jobs and how they got there. The first panelist, James E. Grooms is the General Counsel and Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Jazz at Lincoln Center. He described his job as “more than a lawyer.” He not only has to deal with the legal aspects of sponsorship agreements, taxes, and privacy, he is also involved in the enterprise’s business. To answer how he ended up in his current post, he emphasized that “the relationships you develop with people” are a great way to learn about job options. He met the woman who told him about the job at an airport.
Rupa E. Cornell’s journey to her current position as Corporate Counsel at Boston Scientific Corporation was very unusual: she was cold-called by a recruiter to go in-house. She had previously worked as a corporate attorney. Even though she had no experience in the medical industry, the company was looking to fill a corporate position and she was a good fit for the job. Like Grooms, she says she does everything: acquisitions, taxes, SEC, HIPPA. “Almost on a daily basis something comes across my desk that I’ve never seen before,” says Cornell.
George Freeman (HLS ’75), Assistant General Counsel at the New York Times Company says he took a risk that led him to his current position. He began his career at a law firm that he described as “rather disorganized” in the way it doled out assignments. When he was offered to join the firm’s labor group, he agreed even though it was not one of the more prestigious practice groups. It was a risk because there was less opportunity for advancement within the firm. The risk paid off when he got the chance to work with one of the group’s clients, The New York Times, and eventually moved in-house. He has been with the New York Times for 26 years.
The fourth panelist, Katchen Locke is currently Associate General Counsel for the Service Employees International Union. Locke stated that she “had some lefty friends in college” and when she went to law school she decided she would like to do union work. She could not find an in-house position right away, but after some months at a law firm, Locke received a call from the union and immediately took the job. Her work includes getting pro-union candidates elected, compliance with lobbying and campaign contribution regulations, responding to firings of union members, and working on immigration issues for members.
The panelists were asked what they like and dislike about their jobs. The majority stated they love the diversity of their work and participating in business decisions as opposed to researching narrow legal issues all night. Grooms gave an example of how exciting the work can be. The day he started his job, the company that Jazz at Lincoln Center hired to create a new ticketing software filed for bankruptcy. His task was to find out whether Jazz could recoup any of the money it paid the company. The answer was no, but Grooms took a different route and was able to negotiate with a company that took over the bankrupt company’s business to finish the project. Freeman stated he enjoys his role of “translator between outside lawyers and layman clients.”
The downside of working in-house is the limited resources. With a smaller legal staff, there is less opportunity to bounce ideas off coworkers. Cornell mentioned that there was less organization than in a law firm where the attorneys are the main income producers. In-house counsel, on the other hand, does not bring in revenue and is a service the company needs to spend money on. As a result, there is a certain level of inter-office politics where counsel has to occasionally tell his or her bosses that a proposed course of action is illegal.
Finding an in-house job is more difficult than a firm job. In response to what panelists look for when hiring, Grooms cited consistency. Even if someone has not worked in entertainment law, he looks for extracurricular activities in the field. Cornell and Locke emphasized the importance of finding a good fit with the people in the department. Freeman noted the limited number of positions at most corporations. If the General Counsel stays in his position for 15 years, there is limited room for advancement.
Greiman then asked what options in-house counsel have for changing careers. The panelists said many of their colleagues move to the business side of the companies they work for. In Locke’s experience, some union lawyers move to think tanks or international unions.
The presentation was then opened up to student questions. One of the first questions was about in-house salaries. Although the panelists agreed that compensation is generally lower than at law firms, they mentioned that the hours are significantly better. Cornell stated her job is usually 8 to 6 with no weekend work and no Blackberry. Grooms said, “I have definitely bought my weekends back.”
Another student asked whether the attorneys recommend working at a firm before going in-house. The panelists all spent some time at law firms and suggested that graduates start their careers at a firm where they can obtain the best training. Locke suggested working in a firm or practice area in an industry related to the in-house position the attorney will seek in the future. Cornell, however, said that all experience can be relevant since in-house counsel is responsible for a wide range of legal work. Overall, all four panelists were happy with their careers and recommended looking into in-house counsel.