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Can I Be the Only In-House Lawyer at the Company?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 23, 2015 12:58 PM

Perhaps you have an offer to be a company's first in-house attorney or perhaps you're trying to convince a company that they need to take you on, alone. Can you be a legal department of one? Is there such thing as a solo in-house attorney?

Of course you can and of course there is! In fact, it's fairly common for there to be only one in-house lawyer at many companies.

The Loneliest Legal Department

For smaller companies with limited legal needs, it makes sense to have one qualified lawyer as their General Counsel. After all, in-house legal guidance is always needed, even if a whole department isn't. 

How common is having a sole in-house lawyer? Apparently, pretty common. According to the Association of Corporate Counsel, a specialty bar for in-house lawyers, over twenty percent of their southern California members work in a department of one. That's the second most common arrangement. Small legal departments of 2-5 lawyers are the most common, at 34 percent.

Solo In-House Work

Even if you're the only in-house lawyer, the work will be surprisingly similar to that done by lawyers in larger legal departments. In fact, the "in-house" nature of your lawyering will probably be exaggerated even more. That means solo in-house practitioners will have to be even more of generalists, able to handle a wide variety of matters for their company. 

Many in-house lawyers are familiar with the need to make decisions quickly, but solo in-house practitioners need to be even more comfortable with that, since there's no team to confer with.

Of course, you won't have to do everything alone. Companies with smaller legal departments will have to seek outside counsel more often. That's going against the general trend since more corporate clients are insourcing work to growing legal departments.

Is Working In-House Easier?

It's common for non-in-house lawyers (outhouse lawyers?) to think that working in-house is a panacea of good pay and easy hours. That myth is hardly true -- working ten to twelve hours a day is far from unheard of for a GC -- but it's doubly untrue for solo in-house practitioners. 

Legal departments of one know that a new issue can mean days of staying up late to learn a new area of law. Similarly, solo in-house lawyers need to be skilled at prioritizing, time management, and juggling multiple responsibilities. For lawyers who love variety, who feel rewarded by having an immediate impact on the business, and who appreciate working independently, being the only lawyer in-house is an amazing experience.

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