The majority of Georgetown students who work in the private sector find themselves in large law firms, but it is common for students to find other settings such as small and medium law firms, in-house counsel roles and international law firms.

  • Private Sector 101 (Intro to Private Sector Recruiting Landscape) (39:51)
  • Private Sector 201 (43:31); slides

Large Law Firms

What constitutes a large law firm may vary somewhat geographically – but if a firm has more than one office location, or over 100 attorneys, it is a fair assumption they could be considered a large law firm no matter where they are located. Large law firms tend to serve corporations, as opposed to individuals, and have a range of associated practice areas – such as mergers and acquisitions, transactional, patent, securities regulation, and of course corporate law. Large law firms tend to pay more than small or medium firms, but also require longer hours.

Most medium and large law firms have “summer associate” programs. These programs are designed to give students legal experience while providing firms an opportunity to evaluate students’ work before offering permanent employment following law school graduation. Large firms generally hire their entry-level associates from their summer associate pool. Therefore, it is important to think carefully about your position after your 2L or 3E summer. Some firms will recruit students in the fall of their final year, but these opportunities are scarce.

Many students secure their positions with large law firms through Georgetown-sponsored recruitment programs.

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Small and Medium Law Firms

What constitutes a small or medium firm? The terms “small” and “medium/mid-size” are relative, depending on the market or region within the U.S. For example, the size of a small or medium firm in New York City or Washington, D.C. is different than that in Denver or Cleveland. Regardless of how they are categorized, smaller firms provide employment to a significant percentage of the private sector: the ABA reported in 2012 that approximately 70% of attorneys in the private sector practice in firms with 20 or fewer attorneys.

A small firm can have a diversified practice, in that its attorneys practice in various areas of the law. Such a firm is known as a general practice firm. A small firm can also specialize in particular areas of law, such as patent, tax, or civil rights, and is referred to as a boutique firm because of its specialty practice area. Either type of firm can have sophisticated, complex practices with a diverse client base ranging from Fortune 500 companies to middle market firms to “Mom and Pop” businesses to individuals. There is a tremendous opportunity to define your practice and take responsibility early in this sector; accordingly, small firms target attorneys who can demonstrate a commitment to a particular type of practice and who have hands-on experience that will allow them to make a contribution immediately.

Many smaller firms do not follow predictable hiring cycles for entry-level attorneys. Because these firms tend to hire only to fill a position when an employee leaves or when business demands, it is difficult to define a recruiting “season” for this sector. Many firms say that they prefer attorneys who have experience, as the firms may not have the time or resources to train junior lawyers. These hiring practices extend to summer employment: classes tend to be smaller, if they exist at all; and it is far less common for small and mid-size firms to make permanent offers to summer associates.

These firms typically rely on word of mouth and personal referrals in hiring interns (“clerks”), summer associates, and permanent attorneys – networking, therefore, is a key component of the job search process.

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In-House Counsel

An in-house lawyer is employed by a corporation. Depending on its size, the corporation may have one attorney or a large legal department. In-house attorneys in a corporate law department are often either senior counsel or staff attorneys (a role similar to that of a junior associate at a firm), although some departments avoid this hierarchy.

According to the Association of Corporate Counsel, in-house attorneys are not simply legal advisers for their company; rather,  they “affect the full range of that body’s decisions.” In addition to staying on top of day-to-day legal affairs in their company, in-house attorneys also manage outside legal counsel and dealings with external auditors.

In-house counsel advise their company about a wide array of business components, including contracts, labor unions, and governmental regulations. According to the Association for Corporate Counsel, practice areas for in-house attorneys can include intellectual property, tax, real estate, corporate securities, international trade, antitrust law, and ethics, among others.

While in-house lawyers are employed by one company, they do work with a number of leaders and managers within the company, however. In-house counsel perform managerial functions, “overseeing work that’s been outsourced to attorneys at independent firms.”

In-house counsel at smaller companies frequently work as “generalists with multiple areas of speciality,” whereas bigger companies might have multiple and specialized in-house lawyers. The ABA for Law Students indicates that “in-house attorneys are regularly sought out by company executives and business leaders for input and guidance on business decisions, on operational and risk areas, and in strategic planning efforts.” One member of the ACC says that “The beauty of in-house counsel is that every day brings new challenges and experiences”—ones that generally include a broader and sophisticated practice area, and without mandatory billable hours.

One upside of working as in-house counsel is the potential for a more even work/life balance, and, likely, a more predictable schedule. Compensation for in-house counsel is typically lower than that of attorneys at BigLaw firms, however. According to the Association of Corporate Counsel, “Unlike firm partners, corporate attorneys do not share in the profits of the corporation.” Additionally, in-house counsel might find themselves working with a smaller group of attorneys, especially at a smaller or medium-sized company, as compared to a BigLaw firm. Because many law firms are oriented towards the “partner-track,” those who leave a firm to become in-house counsel might find that the path back to firm work “is not easily retraced.”

Typically, very few opportunities exist for new graduates to start as in-house corporate counsel– these positions are generally filled through a lateral hire from a law firm or government agency. It’s common for these lateral hires to have worked for at least three years (if not more) before becoming in-house counsel. Hiring practices really vary by company, though; some corporations might tend to look to independent firms for litigation—meaning their in-house counsel might consist mostly of transactional attorneys—while others prefer candidates with litigation and trial experience.

Some corporations will hire students as law clerks to work throughout the school year or over the summers. In recent years, Georgetown Law students have spent their summers at a variety of corporations including ExxonMobil, Fox Sports, CitiSelect, Pepco Holdings, Liberty Mutual and many others.

How do attorneys tend to get to an in-house position?

Typically, an in-house position requires several years of work in private practice; most in-house hires have at least three to six years of previous experience, as “corporations rarely hire attorneys directly from law school.” Chambers Associate concurs that “recent graduates have traditionally been at a disadvantage when it comes to getting hired” as in-house counsel. However, some suggest that marketplace trends are shifting towards a willingness on the part of companies to hire relatively new graduates, in an effort to curb external legal spending.

The Association of Corporate Counsel notes that law students might more easily find work as in-house counsel with smaller start-ups, or with corporations that already have a history of hiring directly. Some companies (such as Hewlett Packard, Shell Oil, General Motors, and Aetna) recruit in-house counsel from law schools, but many continue to hire laterally from lawyers already working in firms or for the government. Students can also apply for in-house summer positions and fellowships with university general counsels.

See “So how do I get hired?” (below) for more info on the job search.

What courses should I think about taking?

If you want to become an in-house attorney, consider taking “all the business-related courses you can while in law school,” and even “review course offerings at the business school,” if possible. A business degree—such as Georgetown’s Joint J.D. / M.B.A—or a business certificate program could potentially make the path to becoming in-house counsel smoother, as well as come with a higher earning potential.

Law students should also consider taking courses (or attending informational events or lectures) related to issues that in-house counsel commonly addresses, including those that are business-related (SEC investigations and business mergers), as well as those about legal matters like internal investigations and contract negotiations. Courses in corporate law, property law, and intellectual property could also help establish the wide knowledge base that’s often helpful for in-house attorneys.

Working as a part-time law clerk for a company will also be one way for law students to both make contacts and to assess if in-house counsel is the best career path for them. Many companies also have opportunities for diversity programs that can lead to in-house counsel positions.

What work experience is needed?

Because the in-house job search is frequently very competitive, it’s important to cultivate your academic and professional experiences during and after law school. While different companies will look for in-house counsel with different experience, generally speaking, “applicants with prior small to medium-sized firm” experience might fare better, as this kind of work is more generalist in nature, as much in-house work tends to be.

Experiences such as “law review or other journal experience, judicial clerkships, business clinical and moot court” are “nice to have,” but certainly not prerequisites for becoming in-house counsel. Indeed, unlike credentials prioritized by many firms—a top law school, clerkship, and work with a law review—many in-house counsel hiring searches emphasize “experience, expertise, and one’s ability to manage groups of attorneys.” 

Students should “try to get as much work experience as possible during law school”—such as summers at big corporations, or even writing for a business journal—in order to position themselves as competitive hires for in-house counsel down the line.

What background is preferred?

According to a survey analyzed by the ABA for Law Students, the only “must-have” for in-house counsel is “law practice skills experience,” which can take many forms. However, business knowledge can be helpful. For those specializing in IP, understanding the company’s technological and scientific components is also necessary.

Because different companies will have different expectations of their in-house counsel, law students will want to tailor their job search for corporations where their skill sets would pair well with company needs.

What can I expect compensation to be for an in-house role?

Salaries for in-house roles vary widely. Relevant factors include location, industry, and experience/seniority. Generally speaking, compensation at large law firms exceeds in-house salaries; and compensation in government and non-profit positions is less than an attorney will receive in an in-house role. 

Review our guide on Navigating In-House Salaries for an overview of the subject, resources for researching salaries, and an attack plan for approaching the question.

Where have Georgetown Law students summered for in-house counsel?

List of Alternative Employers (includes in-house roles/contacts)

So how do I get hired?

Because many in-house divisions are not in a position to absorb the cost of training attorneys, they often hire candidates with experience (“lateral hiring”). A typical path to in-house, again, is to spend some time working in a law firm before applying to corporate counsel positions. Generally speaking, litigators are not as well positioned as transactional attorneys to make the jump to an in-house role.

Networking will be an important part of your search. Additionally, the following resources may be helpful as you search for opportunities:

Digging Deeper


International Law can involve almost all practice areas, and therefore no single practice area can be called “International Law.” For example, all of the following fields can and do overlap with international law: human rights, trade, environmental, securities, tax, litigation, arbitration, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property and project finance. International law is an extremely broad area, and can be practiced both in the United States and abroad, in both the public and private sectors.

For students interested in international law, field experience is critical. Though international hiring is decentralized and ad hoc, Georgetown Law offers opportunities for students to intern abroad through our International Internship Program. Each year, approximately 75 Georgetown students intern abroad with over 60 different organizations – law firms, government bodies, non-governmental organizations and corporate in-house legal departments located in over 35 countries covering six continents.

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