The majority of attorneys begin their legal careers in law firms (versus in-house corporate legal departments – i.e., “in-house”) for a variety of reasons–- e.g., there are fewer in-house opportunities for new attorneys, law school graduates often want to get “big firm” experience and training before going in-house, and the compensation can often be higher in big firms. Nonetheless, in my experience as an attorney recruiter, many attorneys in law firms either know starting out or within their first 5 years of practice that they want to eventually transition in-house, and they usually cite one of the following 10 reasons.
With in-house legal departments, companies pay their attorneys’ annual salaries/bonuses/benefits and do not have billable hour requirements or quotas that their attorneys must meet to justify their cost. Conversely, law firms generally have a minimum billable hour requirement and quota that their attorneys must meet to justify their high salaries and to qualify for bonuses and salary increases. The billable-hour system is the way most lawyers in law firms charge their clients, and it’s a key measure of associate and partner productivity. This system can create a culture in which everyone is pushed hard and works long hours, eventually resulting in frustration, fatigue and exhaustion. Many attorneys despise this system, and it’s one of the most common complaints that recruiters hear from law firm attorneys. Consequently, it’s one of the top reasons attorneys in law firms want to go in-house.
2. Work-life balance
Many law firm attorneys have the belief that they will have greater work-life balance going in-house, and this is often true. However, that’s not always the case. In their goal to become a profit center, some in-house legal departments have long, exhausting hours with a lower level of compensation. However, this is generally not the norm. It is incumbent on attorneys to vet this issue when interviewing with any prospective company to ensure that work-life balance exists (with appropriate questioning at the appropriate time, of course). Many in-house interviewers will volunteer information about their organization’s work-life balance since they know this is generally something incoming attorneys want to know and a big selling point when it exists. In addition, attorneys are often, by nature, intuitive and can sense when the in-house attorneys with whom they’re interviewing are happy and content in their roles versus overworked, exhausted and miserable. The latter is generally a tell-tale sign that work-life balance does not exist.
3. Predictability of schedule
Another common complaint among law firm attorneys is the fact that they are essentially on call at all times. They must be available to deal with client emergencies or deadlines that arise at unpredictable and inopportune times – e.g., 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon or over the weekend. As a legal recruiter, I have worked with and placed many in-house attorneys who report that they keep regular hours (e.g., 8:00 am – 5:00 p.m.), do not work weekends, spend quality time with their families, plan vacations in advance and, most importantly, do not fear being penalized for taking vacation with mountains of work upon their return.
4. Working closely with the business team and interfacing with upper level management and executives.
Another appealing quality that attorneys have identified about going in-house is the opportunity to work closely with an organization’s business team and regularly interface with upper level management and executives. An in-house attorney’s clients are the internal business units and the managers and executives who lead those units at the organization at which they work. As a result, these are often the people with whom the attorneys are regularly working, communicating and assisting on a day to day basis. For law firm attorneys, this level of interaction and exposure can be limited if not non-existent.
5. Career Track
In a law firm, an attorney’s career track is generally one dimensional – you begin your career as an associate and then you may or may not make partner. If you do not make partner, you either remain an associate for many years until it becomes too embarrassing to stay; or, if it exists at your firm, you may move into a non-partner role with a special title – e.g., Counsel, Special Counsel, Of Counsel, etc.
At a company, attorneys often have various long term career opportunities available to them. Depending on the organization and its size, you may have the opportunity to move between practice disciplines in the legal group (e.g., litigation to commercial, commercial to regulatory, etc.), be promoted to managerial positions within the legal group, move to the business side in non-legal management or executive positions, etc. The in-house long term career opportunities are broader and may be more easily achieved than law firm partnership.
6. Focus on practicing law versus business development
Because law firms value attorneys that can develop and bring in new business to the firm with some level of regularity, this is generally a prerequisite to becoming a partner and remaining a partner. However, this can be a daunting task for many attorneys because business development is generally sales-oriented, and it is not a skill that law schools or law firms teach. And, not everyone is a natural at business development, particularly those attorneys who are more “cerebral” in the way that they approach things.
In an in-house setting, there is no business development pressure, need or requirement. The company is the attorney’s client. As such, in-house attorneys may simply focus on the practice of law without the worry of developing business or the pressure of “eating what you kill.”
7. Work on deals from start to finish
Attorneys at law firms often are called to assist their corporate clients part-way through a deal or transaction when, for example, an issue arises; or, they may only be asked to handle a specific portion of a deal. Conversely, in-house attorneys are generally not only part of deals from start to finish, but they frequently participate in the pre-planning and business strategy. They also have the opportunity to see how their work and legal counsel impacts the company long-term.
8. Focus on one client
Attorneys in law firms generally have various individual and/or corporate clients with whom they work at any given time. For in-house attorneys, the company (or business unit(s) within the company) is the client. Only working with a single client allows you to get to know that client more intimately, better understand the client’s business strategies and perhaps assist the client in shaping future business strategies and goals. The in-house attorney works with internal legal and business teams, all having a common goal to assist their single client. This is contrasted with doing a little here and a little there for multiple clients and lacking the same level of cohesiveness.
9. Sophisticated work
While many attorneys are under the impression that they may get less sophisticated work by leaving a big law firm and going in-house, this is simply not the case with many companies. As a cost-cutting measure, more and more companies are keeping their legal work in-house versus outsourcing it to outside counsel. So, where you have a large, global company that keeps much of their legal work in-house and engages in complex and sophisticated transactions or litigation valued at billions of dollars, the end result is that their in-house attorneys have the opportunity to work on exciting, high-profile and sophisticated legal matters to which they may not otherwise have access. This is even more true at many big law firms where some associates get little hands-on experience or interaction with the clients.
10. Overseas assignments
Large companies with global operations require legal counsel in the countries in which they are conducting business. This is often accomplished with attorneys native to the country in which the company has operations, but many companies are also sending their U.S. attorneys on international expatriate assignments or temporary rotations to work in conjunction with their foreign counterparts. This is a very appealing opportunity for some attorneys and can be a primary motivation to work for global companies.