On the surface, working as a corporate paralegal in a law firm versus the legal department of a corporation wouldn't seem to be so different. Your title is still corporate paralegal and the law is the law, so why would the work be different? I am a law firm veteran presently working in-house so allow me to share my views on this issue.
I began my legal career as a legal secretary and spent the majority of my work life working in the corporate department of a large Philadelphia law firm. I was very fortunate in that I had a very patient boss who answered my numerous questions and gave me a lot of on-the-job training. When a full-time corporate paralegal position opened up with the firm, I was ready. I applied for (and got) the job.
Working at a private law firm can be a terrific experience for a paralegal. I specialized in the area of corporate and securities law and I had a great deal of responsibility and worked on very sophisticated deals. I thrived on the craziness of long hours and constant pressure. Plus, since law firm work can be intense, the group that you regularly work with becomes almost like family. My colleagues were smart, conversations were always lively and I can honestly say there was never a dull moment. In addition, the compensation and perks of working for a law firm were outstanding.
But at some point, every paralegal experiences burnout. It could be the long days, nights and weekend work or the tediousness of billing in six-minute increments. For me, it was a little of both. After 20-plus years with the same law firm, I felt that I needed a change. I thought that if I worked for a corporate legal department, my life might be a bit more normal. I'd have regular hours, maybe get to see my family a bit more, and I wouldn't have to bill my time. Maybe I could even take a vacation and not take my laptop with me. Wouldn't life be perfect? So, when I was offered a position with a small in-house legal department, I jumped at the chance. Sure, it was very scary to leave a job where I'd become so comfortable, but I was excited to start a new chapter of my life.
I soon learned that in-house corporate work is very different from law firm corporate work. As a corporate paralegal working for a law firm, your work is usually specialized. It was rare when I ventured outside the corporate group for an assignment. As an in-house paralegal, one needs to be more of a generalist. At my first in-house position, I learned very quickly about regulatory filings, policies and procedures, litigation management, how to handle employment issues, respond to subpoenas, etc., all things that I never even thought about at the law firm.
Another distinction between a law firm and in-house setting is the client. Obviously, a law firm's success depends upon serving a variety of clients whereas in-house attorneys serve just one client, the corporation itself. Typically, in-house attorneys and paralegals manage outside counsel. This is one area that I consider to be a drawback to in-house work. Since a company typically uses outside counsel for a lot of its work, a paralegal may not be doing as much "hands-on" legal work, which might make it difficult to return to firm life later on. Legal departments in larger companies that are seeking to cut outside counsel fees (which can be quite expensive) might give a paralegal more of an opportunity to perform substantive legal work in-house.
For an in-house paralegal, you soon find that everything is on a need-to-know basis when interacting with colleagues outside of the legal department (and sometimes even inside the legal department). This is where it is important to remember that their company is the client, and at any time, its employees, vendors, suppliers and customers can be adverse to the client (even including their boss). On the flip side, though, this exposure to the business side of the company business also provides room for development that is not necessarily in the legal field. For instance, paralegals can move into managerial positions such as compliance, claims management or corporate secretarial roles. The bonus of being on the ground with the client in-house is that you get to learn how the client thinks and the processes that they have in place.
In-house legal staff is typically very involved in the entire matter that is of concern to the corporation, including the business issues, while outside counsel see only a particular segment of the problem. As a law firm paralegal, it is often difficult to understand the true nature of the client's business because you are only working on one aspect of it. In-house staff, however, assist in implementing solutions and seeing the matter through to fruition.
As a law firm paralegal, it was very important to me how the firm's work product looked: was the formatting correct, were all of the "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed? In-house counsel have admitted that they often do not have time to make a document look or read as perfectly as they would have at a law firm. Aside from that, in-house staff are evaluated based on what they produce. That's not to say that substandard work is acceptable or that typographical errors and other mistakes are overlooked. But, in-house counsel do not have the time to create a publishable piece of writing for each of their projects. In-house staff must be willing to accept good work that is sufficient to get the job done, rather than revising a document until it is perfect.
As an in-house paralegal, another adjustment for me was the lack of constant supervision. Although paralegals do not engage in the practice of law nor render opinions nor give legal advice and are supervised by attorneys and bound by the same ethics as their attorney, in-house paralegals may face ethical situations that are non-existent at a firm. An in-house paralegal, as an integral part of the business operation, may not be counseling an outside client, yet as part of the business is performing a function that might be counseling inside business people. They may not actually provide a legal opinion but give feedback on a legal issue as to what the company can use in the market, or what satisfies a legal requirement that prevents the company from being exposed to problems down the road. Despite working together in a style that is good for business, in-house paralegals and attorneys are still bound by ethical considerations.
In a law firm, the ethical borders are more closely watched. While a paralegal may assist in researching and drafting an opinion, it is an attorney that will render it and give the client legal advice. All paralegals face the problem today of what constitutes the unauthorized practice of law. The best advice is to be sure that an attorney reviews and supervises your work and for you to be familiar with the statutes in your state.
So which is the better place to work? I do not think I can give you a clear answer on that one since it depends on what you're looking for. Both law firm and in-house positions have their perks and drawbacks. At this point in my life, I prefer an in-house setting (I cannot imagine going back to the days of billing my time). I do work more normal hours, my assignments are challenging and I can still say that I learn something new every day.
Vivian Luckiewicz is a corporate paralegal with Franklin Square Capital Partners and has more than 25 years' experience in business and securities law, corporate governance and regulatory compliance. Luckiewicz is a graduate of Peirce College and sits on the board of directors of The Philadelphia Association of Paralegals.