"In-House" simply means a lawyer who is employed by a company, rather than a law firm. Generally, a company will hire in-house counsel for one of two reasons. First, in many cases it is simply a matter of economics, especially for companies that regularly require legal services. It simply costs less to have a full-time lawyer on staff to handle certain matters, rather than hiring outside counsel at an hourly rate. In certain circumstances, having in-house counsel helps the company to better manage its legal expenses. Second, an in-house lawyer may ultimately be more effective in helping a company to manage its risk because the lawyer is onsite, develops the trust of the company's businesspeople and is thus better able to anticipate an manage legal risks than an outside lawyer who is typically only engaged after there is trouble.
When I was in law school because of my business background, I was frequently asked whether I planned to go in-house after graduation. My typical answer was, "Nah, I don't want to be an administrator." I suffered under the common misconception that in-house counsel generally only manage outside counsel by reviewing legal bills. A lot of people mistakenly believe this and as an in-house lawyer, I now understand that nothing could be further from the truth.
Further, a lot of people believe that going in-house is an interim step for lawyers before retirement. They believe this because they think that in-house lawyers don't have to work very hard. Everyone understands that law firm life is hard, due to the billable hour requirement, client demands and its simply the culture in many law firms that you have to work a lot of hours. Many people mistakenly believe that in-house life is easier than that in a law firm. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
I have been in-house for just over four years. I am presently the Vice President, Legal Services for a large apparel company with close to a billion dollars in revenue. Don't let the title fool you- I am also its only lawyer. This means that whenever there is a legal issue, I am involved. And the truth is, most everything in a business either is or implicates a legal issue or issues.
And by the way, the irony of the job is that the better you do, the more work comes your way. In other words, if the businesspeople trust you and enjoy working with you, they are more likely to consult with you before signing a contract or taking action that could have implications down the road. In other words, you become a trusted advisor to the business. You become so embedded (to use popular vernacular) that you are truly a part of the business, as opposed to someone who pushes paper and rubber stamps things.
Which brings me to the "semi-retirement" claim. Sure, I engage and supervise outside counsel. But that is really only a tiny fraction of my job. The rest of my job, currently about 60-80 hours per week involves negotiating, reviewing, revising and drafting contracts (about 20 or so per week); advising businesspeople on employment, antitrust, products liability, regulatory and other matters; handling litigation (either myself in a lot of cases, or with outside counsel); responding to regulatory requests, such as tax matters; handling real estate matters; advising businesspeople on the company's rights and obligations under its various agreements; developing policies and procedures to keep our folks out of trouble; keeping an eye on the business for the same reason; and perhaps most importantly, advising management on strategic issues (just because your a lawyer doesn't mean they don't want your input on business matters- after all, most lawyers are pretty intelligent people in their own right).
So the bottom line is that I am working harder and more hours than I ever worked in a law firm. By the same token, I absolutely love the work. I enjoy the variety, the autonomy, the breadth and depth of the work, and the people I work with (okay, most of the people I work with). And after many years in the workforce, I absolutely believe that it is truly axiomatic that one must enjoy one's work. If you enjoy what you're doing, work is ceases to become "work". In that way, work does become sort of like retirement. So, come to think of it, I suppose you could argue that I am in a way, semi-retired.
But not for lack of work.