For many law students, the notion of working one day as in-house counsel for a corporation has great appeal. Not having to worry about going to court every day, billing hours, or prospecting clients is enough to whet any litigation-averse law student's appetite.
But it is because of such benefits that the road to a job as an in-house counsel may be longer than some students might hope. In truth, students wishing to make the leap right out of law school may be in for disappointment, as many in-house lawyers often chart an arduous course before making it to the legal department of a corporation.
Such was the message delivered at Miami Law on Wednesday, in a panel discussion titled "From Law School to In-House Counsel," sponsored by the Career Development Office and United Way.
The panelists included Alberto de Cardenas, Executive Vice President and Corporate General Counsel at MASTEC; Jill Granat, General Counsel at Burger King; Flora Perez, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Ryder Systems; and Bradley Stein, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
The panelists recounted their experiences after law school and the paths they wove before becoming in-house counsel at their respective companies.
"I never thought I'd want to go in-house," said Perez, who studied accounting at the University of Florida, obtained her J.D. at Miami Law, and spent much of her early legal career practicing securities law. "I had this vision of in-house as doing the same thing over and over, not really being able to get my hands dirty."
Working for Ryder Systems, a trucking and truck-leasing company, Perez quickly realized how misconceived her notions had been about the responsibilities of in-house counsel. Since joining Ryder, Perez has seen the scope of her legal work and expertise broaden significantly. Although she began by doing securities work, her duties have evolved to doing "anything and everything, day in and day out," she said.
The same was true of de Cardenas's route to in-house. Like Perez, he studied accounting before deciding to attend law school at George Washington University. Upon graduating, he went to work for the law firm of Broad and Cassel in its mergers and acquisitions practice. From there, he segued to a position as in-house counsel at the retailer Perry Ellis, a former client of his while at Broad and Cassel. After three years representing Perry Ellis, de Cardenas was recruited by MASTEC, a national infrastructure company.
His experience doing transactional work at a law firm and working as in-house counsel for a clothing retailer may not seem like the appropriate prerequisites for a job as in-house counsel at an infrastructure company. When viewed together, however, they provided de Cardenas with the breadth of experience necessary to serve as in-house counsel at MASTEC.
When asked to discuss the main differences between representing clients at a law firm and working as in-house counsel, the panelists seemed to agree that the level of responsibility as in-house counsel is significantly greater. "You make recommendations as outside counsel, but you don't really live with those decisions," de Cardenas explained. "Once you're in-house, however, you have to live by your decisions."
CEOs and other members of management look to you for advice, wanting to know what to do in certain situations, he cautioned. Getting used to the added responsibility can take some time.
Bradley echoed the same point. He recounted an occasion at Royal Caribbean when the company was having difficulties in a deal with an Internet technology vendor. Bradley and his staff had spent hours negotiating the intricacies of the deal, but when time came to make the decision as to whether he could accept a $50,000 check on behalf of his company, he had no idea how to proceed. Instead of simply making a legal recommendation, Bradley was now tasked with executing a business judgment – not something for which lawyers at firms are often responsible.
Work as an in-house counsel is never quite what you imagined it would be in the morning, explained Granat, who referred to her unofficial title as "Chief Crisis Officer" at Burger King. Granat spends much of her day responding to various emergencies, managing crises and taking calls from clients and employees around the world – firmly dispelling the notion that work as in-house counsel is boring and monotonous.
Despite all the stresses and the occasional appearance of chaos, working as in-house counsel can prove to be quite rewarding, Perez said. Ultimately, you do it because "you're committed to the organization and you feel something deep," she concluded. "It's a labor of love."