Protecting and Serving
California Lawyer

Protecting and Serving

A lawyer finds in-house life more collegial and rewarding.

July 2014

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It's an exciting and innovative time to work as a general counsel because so many U.S. companies are bringing legal experience in-house. This is particularly true in the fields of employment law, legal and corporate compliance, and risk management.

A life in-house is one without billable hours. Every task I complete stands on the value of a job well done for only one client, my employer. Instead of having to balance business-development considerations with providing external legal advice (in the hope that clients would return for further engagements), my sole job is to create internal, proactive order for a single client that is in perpetual need of my services.

As general counsel to and chief compliance officer of Active Captive Management, I work to nurture a compliance-minded yet growth-oriented environment. ACM serves "captive" insurance companies, which are insurers that are owned by the companies they indemnify. So I play a long game, managing risks for my employer so that we in turn minimize risk as much as possible for our captive-insurer clients.

In some ways my transition in 2012 from a law firm, where I'd been in practice for almost two decades, was easy: I stayed in the fields of insurance and risk management (though now I serve captives instead of representing commercial carriers). In 2013, when the recruiting firm Robert Half Legal interviewed in-house counsel at large companies, it discovered that regulatory compliance was their greatest challenge. In general, companies want in-house attorneys with experience in risk management, compliance, or regulatory work who also understand corporate governance.

In other ways my move required me to make fundamental changes, even in the way I communicate. Inside a law firm, lawyer to lawyer, everyone speaks the same language - legalese. But in-house advisers need to translate legal and compliance information for lay employees so they can understand it and recognize what they're being urged to do. And my translations of regulations, rulings, and law can't put my coworkers to sleep or cause them to reject my calendaring requests to set a meeting with the legal department.

Of course, I went in-house in part because I felt my skills as a proactive thinker and doer would be best suited for a situation in which I could focus on the needs of just one entity - which I could know intimately. But there also is a great need for in-house people focused on the long term and dedicated to the protection of their own employers in the private sector. That's usually far more economical, because paying an outside firm for long-term strategy and advice can be an expensive proposition for any company.

The economic crisis has led big companies to rein in their spending on outside firms, even as they need to beef up their efforts to satisfy increasing industry-specific regulation. Bringing expertise in-house can produce big savings, when partners at outside law firms charge $600 to $1,000 per hour for their services.

That said, outside lawyers' shoes can be big to fill. Some attorneys may still think of the general counsel as a lawyer who jumped ship in search of a nine-to-five workday. But the reality is often quite the opposite. Workplace expectations for an in-house lawyer run just as high, and the hours can run just as long - sometimes longer if the in-house lawyer has been hired to replace external legal resources. Many general counsel now log 60-hour workweeks, on par with their law-firm counterparts.

Long days aside, I still consider the move in-house a trade up. Contrary to law-firm practice, where I found it sometimes difficult and not quite appropriate to connect personally with clients, my current role offers a more organic closeness with the people I serve and protect. My company's employees are many, varied, and all around me, every day (and so far, so good with everyone accepting my calendaring notices to meet with legal). And I have the daily satisfaction of knowing that everyone at ACM appreciates the help and advice I provide - even if I do sneak phrases like "prima facie" or "ab initio" into a conversation now and then. I guess old habits die hard.

Dana Hentges Sheridan is general counsel and chief compliance officer for Active Captive Management, LLC, which serves the management needs of privately held captive insurance companies.

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