This article is written by Soumya Shekhar and Ramanuj Mukherjee.

An in-house counsel is often considered the `jack of all trades’. He takes care of all legal issues which a corporate house may be facing. However, with the evolution of complex legal problems and the evolution of in-house legal teams into mature business partners, we now have a lot more space for specialists within law firms. Still, in most cases, it is an aberration that a company will hire a specialist lawyer rather than a generalist in-house counsel.

When legal departments have specialised work not only once in a while but on a very regular basis, they consider hiring specialist lawyers in-house. For example, a power distribution company may hire a specialist electricity lawyer if it is having a lot of matters regularly in APTEL.

With specialised matters such as regular online trademark and copyright infringements, money recovery disputes, serial acquisitions of companies and employment disputes on the rise, companies have begun to found hiring specialists in-house in some cases more cost effective and efficient rather than instructing outside specialist lawyers.

Another example: let’s say your company regularly raises finance from banks and NBFCs for various projects. If you have 7-8 such loan agreements and security documents to work on for the next one year, it may be more cost effective to hire a specialist banking transaction lawyer rather than pay law firms for 8 such agreements, which can easily run into 20 lakhs!

Alternatively, sometimes the companies are hiring individual lawyers in retainership for such specialised work rather than going to large law firms.

Who is a Generalist in-house counsel?

A Generalist in-house counsel works on a variety of matters. The in-house generalist is required to handle 10 to 20 different matters at once. The work he/she gets is a blend of almost every legal issue that a company may be faced with. It depends upon the type and size of the company, the industry sector, the size of the law department and its reporting structure, and counsel’s own set of skills and experience.

Some of the issues which an in-house generalist may get to work on are:

  • Legal advice on various transactions

  • Ensuring compliance to all laws that apply to an organisation

  • Drafting and reviewing agreements ranging from procurement to software licensing.

  • Drafting, reviewing and updating employee handbooks, policies etc.

  • Managing any litigation against the company as well as instituted by the company. This includes briefing the arguing counsel, conducting legal research, drafting plaints and written statements etc.

  • Reporting, tracking, creating an MIS and dashboards, maintaining various kinds of compliance calendars and assisting senior executives to take important decisions

Pros of becoming an in-house Generalist

If you are someone who is looking for a mix of work, then this job is perfect for you. Becoming an in-house Generalist has myriad advantages. Some of them are:

  • Varied and different work.

  • The opportunity of being involved in transactions from beginning till the end and not only be associated with a particular part of it.

  • It is a great learning opportunity, especially for those at the beginning of their careers. Young lawyers can work on a variety of laws and decide what do they want to specialise in.

  • It gives an opportunity to understand the functioning of the business and the intersections of business and law.

Cons associated with an In-House Generalist role

Being an in-house generalist, is not all bed of roses. The cons associated with the same are as following:

  • Remuneration may be lower in many in-house departments

  • A common myth is that life of an in-house counsel is easy and there is less work involved. However, the sad truth is that in-house counsels too work long hours but do not receive adequate compensation for the same. One of the reasons being that they are the support function in a corporate house and do not generate any revenue.

  • Limited career growth: An in-house generalist dabbles in every legal field and hence reduces his/her chances of moving out into to a more specialised role later on. Moreover, the promotion trajectory of lawyers in a company is comparatively slow.

  • More often than not, especially in litigation-related matters, in-house counsel are involved only in managing the matters rather than applying their legal acumen to it. Hence, a lot of in-house generalists feel that their skills degrade in such a role.

Who is a specialist-in-house-counsel?

A specialist in-house counsel is one who works on a specialised focus area. For instance, lawyers working in the intellectual property division of a company. Some of the typical areas where specialist in-house counsel is required are:

  • Intellectual Property Law: issues such as procurement of software, trademark infringements, patent filing applications etc. are taken care by specialist in-house counsels.

  • Real estate: This is another area, where lawyers specialising in real estate law are required. Big construction companies typically hire real estate lawyers to address any legal issues they may have in this regard.

  • Mergers and Acquisitions: In this age of corporate transactions, companies merging or acquiring other companies is common. Having a team which specialises in the legal aspect of mergers and acquisitions is important.

  • Competition Law: Recently, with the growing regulatory regime around competition law, it has become pertinent to have a specialised team of competition lawyers in place.

Advantages of being a specialist-in-house counsel

Some of the key advantages of a specialist-in-house counsel are:

  • You get to work on one area of your choice and hence, one can work with more focus and dedication.

  • The career trajectory is better than that of a generalist because you are specialising in one particular area. Hence, a move to a law firm or other organisations is generally smoother.

  • You get to work on the technicalities of the law as opposed to merely managing the matter.

  • It is a great learning opportunity as you understand the functioning of law vis-à-vis the business.

Disadvantages of being a specialist-in-house counsel

Despite being an attractive role, the role of a specialist-in-house counsel is not free from flaws. The following are the major disadvantages associated with this role:

  • Lack of variety: The role of a specialist-in-house counsel offers little variation. Most people tend to get bored after a while or start feeling stagnant.

  • You only get involved in a particular aspect of the transaction or legal issue and do not get a holistic picture.

  • The problem of longer hours and less money persists here as well.

  • Learning becomes restricted to a particular area and this may pose issues at later stages of career, when you want to switch from one legal domain to another.

  • A generalist may become a specialist later on, but it is difficult for a specialist to transition into a generalist role, as the extent of their knowledge is myopic.

So should you become a generalist or specialist?

So what should you chose if you want to become an in-house lawyer? generalist or specialist? It is a choice between variety and focus. If I was in your place, I would have started as a generalist and then specialize and eventually get broader experience in multiple sectors in different roles so that I would not be precluded from landing a GC role one day.

There is no denying that specialists get more money especially in the earlier years. This is why those who shift from law firms to in-house tend to do well in the long term.

Basically, the factors that determine what you would choose includes your prior experience, level of knowledge and preparation, skills, interests. There are some factors to keep in mind, such as opportunity to learn, long term benefits and earning potential. However, different people would have different response to the same set of facts based on their personal preference. Hence, keeping the above information in mind, choose wisely.

Whether you are a generalist or specialist, you can perform better in your work by learning certain knowledge and skills depending on the sector you work in. We have some amazing courses that really helps in-house counsels to stand out and exceed expectations of performance.

What would we recommend?

If you want to work in a tech company as a generalist in-house lawyer or develop specialised expertise in technology law, data protection, fintech regulations or drafting and negotiating technology contracts.

If you want to work in a media or entertainment company, we have this IP & media law course that we strongly recommend.

If you will join a manufacturing, FMCG or services sector, this labour law course, company law, corporate governance and SEBI regulations course or this general business law course will be very useful.

Contract drafting is a critical skill for all in-house lawyers. If you need to up your game, this contract drafting and negotiation course is highly recommended.

From time to time, you may need to quickly pick up some skills – maybe after joining a new role or when you are trying to land a certain role.

If your interest lies in real estate, this is what we recommend.

If you are working in a finance company, doing a lot of money recovery matters, or defending insolvency petitions regularly then this IBC course can make a world of difference.

There are a bunch of other online legal courses that may be relevant to you as an in-house counsel. Do check them out!

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