In the past 18 years, I have spoken to thousands of law firm associates about their career concerns. While there are a number of themes that are common (long and unpredictable hours, difficult clients, concerns about not making partner), one thing I have heard over and over again is the desire to go in-house. Simply put, many of these associates have a strong belief that life in a corporate law department is better. Getting one of these coveted jobs would be like winning the legal lottery.
In the 25+ years since I graduated law school, I have also spoken to many in-house attorneys and it is apparent to me that there is a gap between perception and reality when it comes to in-house jobs. While life can be great from the inside, there is hardly a universal feeling of utter career satisfaction amongst lawyers who work in a corporate environment. In fact, there are some real tradeoffs when leaving the law firm environment.
Lawyers who pursue the in-house route like the notion that they can get away from the billable hour. There is a perception that hours are better and because you are now acting as the client, you have fewer unexpected emergencies. There is also the belief that being on the inside is a chance to build ongoing relationships with your internal clients and an opportunity to become part of the “team”.
There is some truth to these perceptions. From my observations, in-house lawyers do tend to enjoy better hours and fewer unexpected emergencies (though there are many exceptions to this.) In-house lawyers are often freed of the burden of having to record hours and by living with one client, there is an opportunity to really get to know the business.
From speaking with many in-house lawyers, I also know that getting off the law firm track does involve some compromise.
First, unless you are doing licensing deals for your company, moving in-house means moving from the income side of a business to the expense side of the business. With this can come a loss of professional status. In a law firm, the partners rule. In a corporation, lawyers are viewed as a cost of doing business. In considering an in-house role, look at the status of the law department in that company. Does the GC report to the CEO? Or the CFO? Is the GC considered part of the senior management team? If there are several attorneys in the law department, what do they say about how they are viewed by the business team? Is their opinion respected? Are they brought in at an early stage before deals are made? Or do lawyers simply come in at the end to make sure everything is documented properly?
While many in-house lawyers do not track their hours, the reality is that this is not a given. In some corporations, you still need to track your hours so that the legal expense can be properly allocated to the appropriate business unit.
In a law firm, you generally have a broad mix of clients. In a corporation, you are dependent on one client. This means that you are putting more of your eggs in one basket. In other words, going in-house can be more risky because you only have one client. If that client is acquired or if the business gets into financial trouble, your job may be at risk. And since in-house jobs are not so easy to find, it may be hard to find the next job. Furthermore, once you go in-house, getting back to a law firm can be challenging because as you get more senior, law firms will want to know what business you can bring with you. As an in-house lawyer, you may not be well positioned to bring any work.
Finally, if you care about the level of sophistication of your work or maximizing salary, then consider whether in-house is the right place for you to practice. In-house lawyers certainly get their share of sophisticated work, but it is more likely that challenging or novel legal problems will be sent to outside counsel who see the same problems across a range of clients. Similarly, unless you get lucky with stock options, in all likelihood, if you leave a major law firm to go in-house, you will probably leave salary on the table.
None of this is to say that lawyers should avoid in-house jobs. There is some evidence that the there is a trend towards companies increasing the size of their law departments. There are also many happy in-house lawyers who do not miss the billable hour. But consider the tradeoffs before you make the move. It may just be that law firm life is a better career option for you. It may just be that you need to find a firm that offers you the right mix of work, billing rates, opportunity to build your own practice and culture.