Tag Archives: Law Firm

An In-House Reality Check: The Grass May Not Be Greener

As a legal recruiter, one of the most common things I hear from law firm associates is that their goal is to go in-house. Law firm associates often can’t wait to leave behind the billable hour.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that — in-house roles can be a good fit for many lawyers. But the way law firm associates idolize in-house counsel positions often indicates an incomplete understanding of the realities of these jobs.

Having spent the majority of my legal career working in-house, I am deeply familiar with the tradeoffs associated with working in-house and can tell you it is not what you’ve been led to believe.

A lengthy interview process

If you land an interview, buckle up because it’s a long road.

You’re likely to get your first taste of the differences between law firms and companies during the in-house interview process.

Law firm interviewing tends to prioritize efficiency: you interview with some partners, meet a few associates, go to lunch, and get an offer. The whole process takes about a month and sometimes much less. 

For in-house roles, you typically apply online, send your resume into the ATS abyss, and hope for the best. If you are one of the lucky ones, you will advance to a recruiter phone screening. Once that is complete, expect to wait at least a week to meet with the hiring manager. After interviewing with the hiring manager, you will be scheduled to meet members of the legal team. If all goes well, you’ll be introduced to the functional leaders you would support. Finally, you may meet with the Chief Legal Officer. The time between rounds is usually about a week. In the interim, you may be expected to complete a take-home assignment or a case study, which you then may or may not present to your potential future colleagues. Overall, expect this process to take four to eight weeks or longer. 

From profit center to cost center

As a lawyer at a law firm, you are part of the profit center: you bill hours and directly generate revenue. You are paying for staff salaries and keeping the lights on. In contrast, an in-house legal department is a cost center, supporting the revenue-generating parts of the business, but not bringing in revenue independently. 

When you go in-house, all eyes are no longer on you, and you are somewhat less important. This shift affects every aspect of your job, including resource allocation, leadership focus, and budget.

No longer the profit center and no longer keeping time, in-house counsel must find ways to add value to the business and develop creative ways to measure those contributions. Adding value and measuring it is doubly important in times of economic uncertainty, when companies move to cut costs.

A change of pace — but not necessarily slower

Whoever told you that in-house counsel enjoy a well-balanced 9-to-5 was wrong. Let’s be clear: the typical in-house role is far from the relaxed 40-hours-a-week you’ve been pitched. In reality, 60-hour weeks are not uncommon for many in-house lawyers.

First, the decision to hire in-house counsel is made for a reason: there is a lot of work to be done. You are expected to take on the work of outside counsel independently, and to do so with fewer resources.

Remember that hearing you went to 30 minutes away or the time you spent sitting in court waiting to argue? As an associate, this counted as productivity. As in-house counsel, when you spend time on activities where your presence turns out not to have been necessary, you’re the one who bears the cost. You still have to get your work done, and frequently that means putting in time in the evenings or on weekends to catch up.

Finally, businesses move at an incredible pace. You’re likely to find that timelines are extremely short. Gone are the days when you had two weeks to complete a memo. Now you need to do it in 30 minutes. Your internal clients need quick answers, and if you don’t weigh in immediately, the business will take action without you.

Juggling many responsibilities

Private practice is all about specialization. But at most companies, especially smaller ones, every in-house counsel has a much more diverse range of responsibilities on their plate. That can be exciting, but it’s also time-consuming and stressful, especially when you are given responsibility for an area unrelated to your prior law firm practice.

Startups take this to the extreme. Not only will you be one of the few lawyers in the company (perhaps even the only one!), but you will also probably be one of the smartest people in the room. People will recognize that, and they’ll want to tap you for projects that aren’t squarely within the legal domain. Being involved in non-legal subject matter might sound fun, but it can be exhausting when combined with the legal work that forms the core of your portfolio.

Be realistic about the tradeoffs

There’s no denying that law firms can be a tough environment, and a long-term career in private practice isn’t for everyone. But it’s easy to take for granted the benefit of being surrounded by smart and well-credentialed colleagues. Not to mention resources like immediately responsive paralegals and subscriptions to any database you desire. Or a well-defined career progression with material increases in compensation every year. As an in-house counsel, you can’t expect a luxury building in a prime location, a private office, an assistant, a paralegal, or even Westlaw.

You may be more than happy to make those tradeoffs. But do think it through carefully. The grass isn’t always greener.

Dreaming of an In-House Gig? Don’t Make the Jump Too Soon!

In-house counsel positions sound like the promised land for many Biglaw attorneys. A better lifestyle and no billable hours, plus decent compensation. Who wouldn’t want that? To what extent the in-house grass is in fact greener is a matter of debate though. Experiences vary greatly from one company to another. But for many lawyers, the in-house track can be a good long-term fit.

However, as I discussed on a recent episode of Movers, Shakers & Rainmakers, there is tremendous risk in making the switch too soon. Risk that many law firm associates don’t realize when they jump at the first in-house role they can get. A premature exit from the law firm track can severely stunt an in-house counsel’s career growth. When companies make in-house offers to relatively junior associates, they tend not to warn candidates that entering at a junior level will probably prevent them from being on the General Counsel track in the future. Armed with this knowledge, associates must educate themselves about in-house career trajectories. If they do accept an in-house role, they must do so with correct assumptions.

Different learning curves

At a top law firm, the knowledge you gain is on the cutting edge of your practice area. You work for clients who bring their most pressing issues to you to solve. Whether handling novel issues in bet-the-company litigation or providing counsel on eye-popping deals. Clients rarely pay expensive outside counsel billing rates for routine matters. In-house attorneys, by contrast, work for a single client. The matters are more often routine and more cost effective if done on the company payroll. They can provide the allure of a broader range of subject matters than your experience at a law firm. But when cutting edge issues do arise, the company will tend to send them to external counsel.

The upshot is that the knowledge base you bring with you from law firm work will be critical. It can be the key ingredient in your competitiveness for in-house leadership roles. Companies promote attorneys who can more cost effectively solve problems in-house. The more high-end experience you have the more problems you can solve. But a third-year associate moving in-house will have a smaller knowledge base than someone more senior. You will churn out relatively easy and repetitive work on a small number of problems. That is more akin to a staff attorney, and staff attorneys are not on track for internal advancement. Worse yet every minute you do not realize this it hurts your long term career. Should you decide you would be better off back in private practice you may find returning to the law firm track challenging. Firms do not value in-house and private practice experience as the same. You will be behind your class year. A class year cut is a possibility, but firms prefer not to deal with that — they would much rather hire a lateral candidate from another law firm.

When to make the switch

So when is the optimal time to make the jump? It depends on your practice area and the company in question. As a general rule though, five full years practicing is a good benchmark. As a sixth-year associate, you will bring real substantive experience to the table. You will have put in your 10,000 (billable) hours. You will have dealt with clients, taken on leadership roles, and be able to tackle more problems. Most important, you will more likely hit the ground running at the company. Your in-house leadership will have confidence to assign you greater responsibility. Your position on the GC track will be more secure. In certain transactional fields where in-house work is very similar to outside counsel work — tech transactions, for example — you can make the switch a year or two earlier. But even in these niches, you will want to wait until you have solid mid-level associate experience.

There is also a silver lining in waiting. You will have a greater appreciation for the various legal career paths. Not only will you have a clearer sense of what law firm partners do (and don’t do). You will also have worked directly with clients and seen the realities of in-house work. This increases the likelihood that you will make the right decision for you. Whether that means shooting for the partnership or joining an in-house team. It also gives you greater optionality in case you make the wrong decision. A former sixth-year associate can pivot back to the law firm track after spending a year or two with a company easier than a third year. Lawyers with this profile are often strong candidates for law firm counsel positions.

In-house careers can be a great option for many attorneys. But if you’re eager to trade law firm life for an in-house gig, make sure you understand the tradeoffs. You may not relish spending an extra couple of years in the Biglaw grind, but that investment is likely to pay real dividends when you finally make the in-house switch. Measuring your career in decades you would be smart to take a long-term view.