The most common response we get when we reach out to law firm attorneys is, “I’m pretty happy here, but I am definitely interested in hearing about in-house opportunities.”
Working as an in-house attorney can be an incredibly satisfying way to practice law. I get it. I was an associate at a large international law firm and then moved to an Associate General Counsel position at Equity Residential where I practiced for 8 years. I loved the experience. You represent one client and have the opportunity to learn the business perspective. Most importantly, working in-house allows you to truly understand your client’s risk profile, which means that you will be an attorney who can “add value” in a way that your co-worker business clients appreciate. And of course, the cherry on top, you don’t have to bill your hours.
That said, before you leave your law firm for an in-house role, there are a few things you should consider.
1. Is the Work Substantive
You will need to ascertain what type of work the company’s legal department actually does. Like law firms, all in-house legal positions are not created equal. Depending on the size of the company, the industry and how upper management views the legal department, the nature of the work itself can be very different. The best opportunity to do substantive work exists where the legal department is well-regarded within the company and handles all of its legal work, including transactions. While the company may occasionally hire outside counsel for specialized projects, or for discrete parts of large transactions (think tax), many in-house legal departments function like a captive law firm. Be aware that there are legal teams that perform an intermediary function and do not perform a high level of substantive work. This arrangement might work for an attorney who wants to transition out of law to the business side, but otherwise may not be the most satisfying way to practice.
2. Is it Really a Better Lifestyle
Substantive in-house jobs are exciting, but they do not necessarily offer a true lifestyle change from a law firm. Lawyers work hard, and are viewed as “free” by the business focused internal clients, who are not lawyers. This can result in a heavy workload that is not obvious to others, and there may even be times when you wish you could bill time just to demonstrate how hard you are working.
3. Is there a Variety of Work
You will need to determine whether the in-house legal department works on a variety of matters or is tasked to handle only one aspect of the company’s legal needs, like service contracts or vendor agreements. In positions where the legal department has a narrow focus, the work itself might not be as meaningful or varied. That said, the hours for these positions may be more manageable.
4. Pay, Career Path and Job Security
Other issues to consider before you leave a law firm for an in-house position are pay, career path and job security. Most junior and mid-level in-house positions pay less than law firm jobs, and a lot less if you are coming from Biglaw. Your job title can be important because it may dictate your bonus opportunity. Corporate raises are generally small by comparison to annual law firm salary bumps. Start-ups and publicly- traded companies may offer the opportunity to participate in the growth and success of the company through option or stock grants which can be valuable, but even if you are working at a strong company, the legal department is always a cost center and is vulnerable in the event of a downturn.
You also will need to assess the structure of the legal department – if the general counsel has only a few more years of experience than you, you may have to make another career move to advance. Finally, working in-house means working in a corporate environment, which is very different than working at a law firm. Corporations, in general, have rules and policies that are focused on business professionals and do not necessarily reflect how lawyers typically work (e.g., all employees are expected to be at work at 8:00 a.m. but you were up late drafting a contract and want to come in 9:00 a.m.).
While cultural fit is important for all attorney positions, it is perhaps most important for in-house positions. Corporate legal departments are service providers, and their success depends on building strong relationships with internal clients, other attorneys, and subject matter experts. If you are a candidate for an in-house position, it is important to make sure that you can talk about your ability to be collaborative and team oriented.
Shelley Dunck is a Managing Director at McCormack Schreiber. She began her career as an associate at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, LLC and was also Associate General Counsel and First Vice President at Equity Residential. Learn more about Shelley Dunck in our latest Featured Recruiter spotlight.