In-house Counsel

When Is the Best Time for Lawyers to Go In-House?
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For many starry-eyed associates, in-house is the utopia of the legal field. After working in private practice for several years, exhausted attorneys are drawn towards the “work-life balance” that an in-house counsel job may offer, or they want more opportunities to work one-on-one with a client on significant matters, instead of feeling like another cog in the wheel.

Here’s the thing: The idea of in-house is often overly romanticized as a promised land for burn-out attorneys, and it would be extremely unwise to assume that all in-house lawyers are deliriously happy while firm attorneys are suffering miserably. 

What changes when you go in-house?

The truth is, going in-house will not remedy what’s troubling you now at your current firm. The grass is not always greener and switching environments is not necessarily the right answer for the doldrums in your career. What’s more, in many cases going in-house can be a career killer, especially if you make the move too early.

  
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If an in-house move is on your career radar, it’s imperative to know what this entails and if it’s the right fit for you. 

Undoubtedly, an in-house position may offer a break from billable hour quotas while offering more interesting work, potentially lucrative stock options, greater responsibility, easier prioritization of projects, and you’ll no longer need to juggle a multitude of clients with competing demands.  

However, there are many challenges you should consider when pondering the move in-house:

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1. You’ll face different pressure.

Law firms strive for perfection in everything they do, and they take the time to get it right. In a corporate environment, however, you’ll be expected to come up with great advice quickly, as fast turnarounds are the norm. If you thrive under pressure, this shouldn’t be much of a challenge. But if you tend to crack under tight timeframes, buckle up.  

2. The 9 to 5 schedule is a myth.

The general idea that in-house guarantees a firm 9-to-5 schedule appeals to many tired lawyers. However, as a company’s needs can be unpredictable, “face time” is a common requirement of the corporate legal environment along with last-minute projects that involve late nights and weekends. Also, if you are working for a large multinational company you could be expected to travel at the drop of a hat.

3. In-house lawyers are more vulnerable to layoffs.

In a law firm, lawyers are the lifeblood of the business. Conversely, in-house legal departments are often considered a cost center because they do not generate revenue. Consequently, if the company hits hard times or goes out of business, you as “supporting staff” and not a profit-generator may be the first to face layoffs. 

“During the late 1990s and the first part of 2000, thousands of attorneys left the law firm world and went in-house at a rate that is unrivalled by any other time in history. In major markets, such as California and New York City, we estimate that at least 65-70% of the attorneys who left law firms became unemployed within 18 months of starting their in-house jobs,” says Harrison Barnes, a legal recruiter, and founder of BCG search. 

4. You’ll earn less than in a law firm.

Four out of five attorneys who leave their law firms earn less working in-house. This is because, without billable hours, attorneys are paid according to the company’s fixed pay structure. What’s more, in-house attorneys often work more than their counterparts in private practice. So, by doing the math, you will realize that you might work just as hard as you were at a law firm, but make far less.

5. You might get bored. 

At a law firm, you are used to working with a number of clients, constantly switching gears while keeping your workload interesting. As in-house counsel, your employer is your only client. The tediousness of the same day-to-day tasks may be offputting for those seeking excitement and challenges in the workplace.

6. You’ll be a “resident buzzkill”.

Most attorneys inside of companies are known as “Negative Nancies” who spend their days telling management what is not possible and getting in the way of progress. Therefore, in-house counsel is often not liked by people inside of the company.

7. There is no turning back.

Another more compelling reason to seriously reconsider going in-house as an associate is one that trumps everything discussed above: Once you go in-house, you will be very unlikely to practice law in a large law firm ever again.  

Going in-house with no solid law firm experience under your belt could make it virtually impossible for you to return to a law firm position again.

“A significant portion of the attorneys contacting us are attorneys whose most recent experience is in an in-house legal department. We rarely are able to help these attorneys into a law firm because law firms simply do not want them, regardless of how good of a law school they went to or how stellar their last law firm was,” says Barnes.

“A majority of these attorneys were graduates of top law schools coming from America’s best law firms. The thought that they would ever be unemployed or have a difficult time locating a position was something that was incomprehensible to them and their families when they went in-house.” Barnes adds.

And here’s why: In the first few years as an associate, your law firm is geared toward shaping you into an excellent attorney. You are expected to work hard and impress partners; develop a skillset in relating with clients; and then make partner, take an of counsel position, or move to another firm. 

Each step of the way, you are growing in your law firm’s eyes. It is especially problematic for an attorney to go in-house before getting at least four to five years of experience in a law firm. Going in-house causes you to prematurely deflect off the law firm’s development track.

In a law firm, you are trained to become the best at what you do. Whereas in a corporate environment, you’ll be developing a broad set of skills—you’ll become a lawyer with limited knowledge about everything and an expert in nothing. A generalist skillset won’t bode too well if you want to market yourself to a law firm again, as the skills you had obtained in an in-house position are not likely to align with the demands of the law firm. 

A way better strategy for taking a leap to an in-house position would be to wait until you’ve hit the “ceiling” at your law firm and cannot move any further in your career. With more experience under your belt and partner status, you could easily transition into a more lucrative role at a company.

If you are still considering an in-house gig, there are things you can do now to prepare yourself for a successful transition. 

What can I do to prepare for an in-house counsel job?

Focus on business development for your firm. 

Cultivating relationships is key in the legal profession; leveraging the connections you’ve developed over time will reflect well and potentially generate business at your firm, and it will also give you an “in” to a company once you’re ready to move in-house.

Focus on your emotional intelligence skills.

In a corporate environment, you will engage in meetings, team building, and constantly interact with different department members. Therefore a solid EQ is essential.

If you’ve hit a lull in your career, don’t jump to the conclusion that switching to in-house will remedy the pains you’re feeling at your current firm.



 

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