According to CDO’s 5th and 10th Year Career Development Surveys, around 10% of YLS alumni are working in a business setting five years after graduation and nearly 20% are in business 10 years after graduation. The settings in which these alumni work vary greatly and include in-house practice to corporate business roles to alternative careers in innumerable industries.

In this section we discuss in-house legal practice. Students interested in exploring nonlegal opportunities including management consulting, finance, and non-profit management, should connect with The Tsai Leadership Program. Mary J.L. Herrington (mary.herrington@yale.edu) is available to discuss nonlegal private sector business careers and Margie Adler (margie.adler@yale.edu) is available to discuss nonlegal public sector careers.

In-House Legal Practice


The job of in-house lawyers is to apply their legal knowledge and skills to help a company succeed, while identifying and protecting the company against risks. The size and nature of the company typically dictates the specific role of the in-house lawyer. In smaller organizations, in-house lawyers usually have a general role and are responsible for overseeing all of a company’s legal relationships, including with other companies, government agencies, and investors – as well as internally with employees, management, and directors. In larger organizations, in-house lawyers typically have a specific role, handling the company’s needs in a discrete area of the law.

Potential Advantages of In-House Practice:

  • Attorneys who transition to working in-house often choose that path to gain greater control over work hours. While in-house attorneys still work long hours, they often are better able to predict their schedules because they have a greater sense of impending projects. Moreover, in-house attorneys have the advantage of sometimes sending work to outside counsel. In-house work appeals to lawyers who wish to become a stakeholder in a business and, accordingly, to be more fully ensconced in a specific entity, rather than just serving as an auxiliary advisor. Attorneys at law firms represent many clients while an in-house attorney has only one client. By focusing on a single client, in-house attorneys become more familiar with the client’s needs, and ultimately become more engaged in the client’s overall business. In-house attorneys tend to get involved with deals or litigations at an earlier stage than law firm attorneys, and, in addition to being looked to for legal advice, in-house attorneys are often considered business partners and may be looked to for business judgments.

Potential Disadvantages of In-House Practice:

  • A potential drawback of in-house work is that the most challenging work may be handled by outside counsel leaving the in-house attorney to manage legal processes rather than to engage directly in them. In addition, some in-house attorneys report that although the focus on one client gives more depth to their legal practice, they have lost the breadth and variety afforded by law firm practice. The base salary of an in-house attorney likely will be lower than an attorney with a similar number of years of experience at a law firm; however, an entire in-house compensation package may include a fuller benefits package, stock incentives, and an annual bonus.
  • Unlike working in a law firm and generating income for the practice, in-house lawyers are part of the overhead of the company, and typically have fewer resources than their counterparts at law firms.

In-House Opportunities

Most companies do not hire attorneys straight out of law school and instead seek attorneys with several years of legal practice experience who can hit the ground running. Often, companies hire law firm attorneys who have conducted work on behalf of the company. If you are interested in transitioning to in-house work at some point after law school, consider working for a firm during the summer and after graduation that does work in industries and/or companies of interest to you. Some firm summer programs provide an opportunity to spend part of the summer with a client of the firm. Also consider whether particular geographic locations are more involved in the industry of interest to you (e.g., oil and gas in Texas, entertainment in California, international finance in New York). and consider working in that location.

To gain experience during law school, you may also want to explore corporate summer opportunities. Although many companies do not offer summer legal internships, some do, and others may be willing to create an opportunity for the right candidate.

  • Consult CDO’s list of Business Employers of YLS Students.
  • Explore company websites to learn about internship programs.
  • Use The Courtyard,  LinkedIn, and Leadership Connect to find and connect with alumni working in corporate settings. Conversation ideas include:
    • What was their path to an in-house position?
    • What do they enjoy most and least about working in-house?
    • What do they do in a typical day? What skills do they use the most in their current work?
    • Do they have recommendations for particular courses or activities in law school?
    • Do they have recommendations for particular summer internships, including corporate or law firm opportunities?


As you consider industries of interest to you, contemplate these questions:

  • Do the intricacies and competitive landscape of the industry (e.g. investment banking, technology, consumer products, etc.) excite you?
  • What exposure to this industry have you had or can you obtain through work or education?
  • What are in-house attorneys’ roles at these sorts of companies?
  • What types of specialty lawyers are in-house with these kinds of companies?
  • Is the industry growing or unstable? For public companies, review SEC filings, to assess the present financial picture.

As you drill down to particular corporate opportunities, contemplate these topics:

  • How are in-house lawyers regarded by the company’s business side? Are they seen as partners or as police, to be avoided and kept in the dark?
  • Learn as much as you can about the corporate culture. For example, how does the company handle customer complaints? What is the company’s internal feedback structure? 
  • Gain an understanding of what your role in the company will be. To whom will you report? Will you be responsible for a particular area of law or a variety of legal issues?

In-House Practice Settings

At some point in a small and non-public company’s existence, its executives may decide that it makes business sense for the company to hire an in-house lawyer. The reasons may include the expense and inefficiency of using outside counsel for all legal matters or the desire to include a mind with legal training among the company’s decision makers. Depending on a lawyer’s level of experience and that lawyer’s anticipated role within the company, the lawyer may be hired to manage and oversee all legal relationships—internal and external to the company—or, in some less frequent cases, to perform a more narrow function, such as administering commercial contracts.

  • Some common responsibilities for this type of in-house position may include:
  • Setting up the appropriate corporate structure for the company, whether it be a C corporation, subchapter S corporation, limited liability company, or partnership, and reviewing use of subsidiaries to limit liability and obtain favorable tax treatment.
  • Making sure that the company is complying with all corporate formalities, such as by-laws, board meetings, board minutes, resolutions, annual meetings, state filings, and stock issuance, to name a few.
  • Ensuring that all company assets are properly protected (particularly intellectual property) and that patents have been filed, trademarks applied for, and copyright labeling properly utilized by the company, particularly with regard to its sales and marketing function.
  • Developing and implementing a code of conduct and employee policies, including training and employee agreements, in areas such as sexual harassment, confidentiality and non-disclosure, ethics, government relations, bribery, conflict of interests, and so forth.
  • Complying with state and federal employment laws.
  • Reviewing tax status and coordinating with the finance department’s tax group.
  • Complying with applicable federal, state, and international regulations, including obtaining any necessary licenses to conduct the company’s business such as service authorizations which, in a regulated industry, take on great importance.
  • Documenting all legal relationships with written contracts, standardizing frequently used agreements and forms, and implementing an approval process for decision-making.
  • Managing litigation, generally handled by outside counsel, particularly if it involves substantial risk or assets.
  • Overseeing outside counsel, determining what to outsource, managing the legal budget, and supervising staff, if any.

The in-house counsel for a small company thus serves as a jack-of-all-trades and should be prepared to handle everything from first-year associate-like matters to problems that senior law firm partners would typically handle. Because a company will usually seek as its first lawyers people with experience and demonstrated abilities, and because those lawyers will not be robustly surrounded by legal colleagues and supervisors, the opportunity to serve as a company’s first several lawyers will likely come after several years of legal practice.

To grow, a company needs capital. A company can take many avenues for obtaining that capital: it can seek to go public by listing its stock on an accredited exchange for purchase and trading by the general public; it can sell shares in a private placement; or it can exchange equity for capital from venture capitalists. To go public and for most private placements, a company must comply with the requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). That means the company needs lawyers.

As a company prepares to sell part of its equity to raise capital, the role of the in-house lawyer is enhanced. In taking the company public, the general counsel will work with outside counsel to coordinate preparation of all filings with the SEC, comply with state blue sky laws, as well as work with investment bankers and underwriters as applicable. At this point, the attorney’s primary client is probably the company’s chief financial officer, who is generally managing the fundraising process for the company. Additionally, the company may be ready to expand its legal department as its day-to-day legal requirements increase and become more varied.

A lawyer with only a few years of experience may be well-suited to one of the secondary roles in a growing company (typically known as an assistant or deputy general counsel). In addition to the benefits noted above, a lawyer joining a company at this stage will have the experience of working and networking with the legal and investment communities in a concerted effort to take the business to a new level.

Large companies, such as Fortune 500 companies, will have many in-house lawyers. Headed by a chief legal officer or a general counsel, the legal department in a large company may have numerous associates or attorneys holding the rank of assistant general counsel, and perhaps 100 or more staff attorneys working to service the needs of the company.

The responsibilities of an attorney in a large in-house legal department vary depending on the department’s structure. The department may be centralized, with attorneys working in groups supervised by an assistant general counsel and ultimately the general counsel. In this structure, each group is typically given responsibility for certain discrete areas, such as litigation, corporate governance, tax, contracts, regulatory affairs, or employment. In the other model, the attorneys are decentralized and each division or business unit of the company may have lawyers who handle a wide range of general issues involving just that particular division, with the division legal head reporting dually to the division business head and the corporate legal head.

In many cases, a significant part of an in-house attorney’s time in a large company is spent interacting with outside legal counsel. As a result, it is critical that an in-house attorney has excellent communication skills, interpersonal skills, and business savvy.