Ins and outs of the law

I became an in-house attorney for a major government contractor in Northern

Virginia about two months ago after many years as an outside attorney in

Washington, D.C.

While the impacts of this change are fresh in my mind, I thought it

would be a good time to share my observations on the differences between

in-house counsel and outside counsel, and to provide insight about how

each should be employed.

The single, overriding fact of life in an outside law firm is the omnipresent

focus on the billable hour. In a firm, success is measured primarily by

how many billable hours an attorney can generate. Many lawyers at outside

firms count a case as a "win" if the firm gets paid for the hours worked,

regardless of whether the client received the relief it wanted.

A major reason lawyers leave private practice to seek in-house work

is to escape the focus on the billable hour. Working in-house at an organization

or company, all of your work is for one client, and there is no longer any

reason to track your life in tenth-of-an-hour increments. Success no longer

is measured by whether you can collect your fees. It's measured by whether

you help the organization make the correct decisions for the long-term benefit

of shareholders, stakeholders or employees.

Companies typically use outside attorneys for the largest or most specialized

projects. Because in-house legal staffs generally are small compared with

most legal firms, it can be difficult to handle a particularly large or

arcane proj-ect wholly in-house. Outside counsel is a perfect supplement

to handle such a project.

On the other hand, at $300 per hour or more, most companies want to

limit the amount of work outside attorneys perform for them. That means

in-house attorneys are expected to provide advice on a much broader range

and greater volume of issues than an outside attorney would deal with.

The diversity and volume of work a typical in-house attorney encounters

can feel like drinking water from a fire hose. But it's exciting and fulfilling

to be that close to the real action. Life in a law firm seems a little too

sterile and remote by comparison.

An in-house lawyer gets to work closely with many different kinds of

people at different levels of the company. Therefore, it is a good place

for someone who is a people person, but it might feel somewhat claustrophobic

to those who prefer the rarefied air of a private firm.

Knowing how to use an attorney effectively is an important skill for

any businessperson. Like any other skill, it can be learned.

It seems to work better when counsel is treated as a trusted adviser

and not as another technical specialist. Of course, this treatment must

be earned by the lawyer.

Peckinpaugh is corporate counsel for DynCorp, Reston, Va., and formerly

a member of the government contracts section for Winston & Strawn, Washington,

D.C. This column discusses legal topics of general interest only and is

not intended to provide legal advice. Should you have a specific question

or legal problem, consult an attorney.


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