The changing role of the general counsel

In-house counsel are working fewer hours than counsel at large law firms.

In-house lawyers are handling more of their companies’ legal work, they’re getting better pay, and they’re working hard – but not insanely hard. Those are the key findings of a recent census conducted by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC).

To get a sense of how true those talking points are, Corporate Secretary took a look at the work experiences of Megan Tipper, senior counsel at National Grid, and Asma Hasan, who serves as chief legal officer, senior vice president and corporate secretary for HealthTrio and Monument Systems, two small affiliated healthcare IT companies which have a combined workforce of about 150 employees. Both Tipper and Hasan went in-house seven years ago after working for big firms, but their current companies couldn’t be more different.

Tipper joined National Grid, a multi-billion-dollar international electrical utility, after five years at the large law firm of Bingham McCutchen. Hasan advanced to chief legal officer after starting her legal career at Clifford Chance and spending a few years as a writer before returning to law full-time. Tipper is based in Boston, while Hasan is in Colorado.

As to the trend toward keeping more work in-house, Tipper agrees that it was happening at National Grid, though she points out that as a general matter the company has always done as much work in-house as possible. Cost is one key driver, as keeping the work in-house is simply cheaper, but there was another advantage, Tipper notes: ‘The in-house people have a better grasp of what’s important to the company.’
The long game

She cites her company’s assets’ longevity as an example. ‘As in-house counsel, I’m sensitive to the fact that if you secure the property rights for a new transmission line, it lasts 100 years or more,’ she explains. ‘We’re working on gas lines that were initially established in the 1830s. What we do doesn’t get torn down and redeveloped as something else every 20 years or so. And that sense of permanence is not something outside counsel would necessarily grasp, which is why relying on what’s ‘market’ in real estate doesn’t work for us. We have to think long past what may be acceptable now, and remember that what we agree to now we will still have to live with 100 years from now.

‘I think that’s true of anybody who works in-house,’ she adds. ‘You grasp the peculiarities of your business in a way that outside counsel cannot.’

At HealthTrio and Monument Systems, cost has been the core focus of Hasan’s efforts to keep work in-house. Her CEO sees dollars spent on outside counsel ‘as a waste of resources, unless really justified’, because every dollar invested in outside counsel is a dollar that cannot go into developing more and better software.

Tipper and Hasan both emphasize that while their companies keep as much work in-house as possible, outside counsel are needed and appreciated. Tipper explains, ‘We turn to outside counsel when there’s an unusually high volume of work, or if we need something turned around within 24 hours, or if we need expertise in a specific area.’ Hasan agrees, pointing to litigation as an example of when she has reached outside the firm, particularly to lawyers local to the dispute. Patents are another such area.

Cost also influences the types of outside counsel Hasan hires. She avoids working with large firms and instead chooses solo practitioners or small firms with the specialty expertise that justifies placing the work outside. Besides solos being cheaper overall, Hasan finds that long-term interaction with them is better too. Over the years she has developed deep relationships with a few key outside counsel. She notes that small firms and solos tend to be easier to reach, and they bill more efficiently. ‘The big-firm approach is to staff up and put a team on it,’ she explains. ‘With solos and small firms, the person you’re talking to says, I’ll handle it – I’ll take care of you.’
Fair deal

Hasan has developed effective tactics to accommodate her firm’s emphasis on cost control. First she tries to standardize the rates she pays for all outside firms: ‘Every few years we try to do an audit of our rates and try to bring everyone in line. The rate issue can give me a sense of how the lawyer will operate going forward. One who will take what everyone gets is more likely to be a team player.’ Having a lower rate, Hasan notes, doesn’t mean lower total billing each year, as ‘we give more work to the less expensive attorneys.’

When negotiating rates with outside counsel, Hasan has one other cost-saving tactic: she locks in the rate until the end of the next calendar year. This can add months of rate security compared to the standard annual contract.

The ACC census notes that in-house counsel report high job satisfaction and compensation, and workloads dramatically lower than those of their counterparts at big law firms. While weekly hours worked increase with seniority, nearly half the people who have been in-house for 16 years or more report working 50 or fewer hours each week. The census also notes that in-house counsel have few opportunities to move up the ladder over the years. Hasan and Tipper confirm three of these four statistics: they love their work and are happy with their compensation, but see little scope for upward mobility (although in Hasan’s case, she started at the top). However, they both work more than 50 hours a week on a regular basis.

Tipper explains: ‘I, and I think most people here, average about 55-60 hours a week, but it’s nothing like the 70-plus at a firm. I get to go home at night and my weekends are usually free. The company strives to be respectful of employees’ work/life balance.’
Working fewer hours doesn’t mean Tipper’s work is routine or that she’s stuck professionally either. ‘I’m never doing the same thing day to day, so I’m always developing new skills,’ she says. ‘The company also provides you with the opportunity to do different things if you want that. Sometimes opportunities arise on the business side, or within the department itself.’

Although Tipper acknowledges that the title/advancement issue is real, noting that the ‘hierarchy can be pretty entrenched’, it doesn’t bother her these days. ‘I continue to grow and develop as a lawyer and my salary keeps pace,’ she concludes.

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