As long as I’ve been a lawyer recruiter, I’ve heard attorneys ask this question. Those thinking about making a change sometimes can’t fully articulate why they’re considering it. Often, they give only one reason: to escape from the pressure of billable hours.
But moving from a private law firm to an in-house position should be a well-thought-out and educated decision, as the change may have a profound impact on your career. Although in-house once was considered a poor relative to private practice, that is no longer the case. Attitudes toward in-house lawyers have shifted remarkably in the 20-plus years that I have observed the legal market. The quality and expertise of in-house lawyers have continued to rise.
The ebb and flow into corporate in-house and back again to private law firms being “in power” changes every decade or so. Currently I see the weight of that power being on the in-house side, primarily because of the competitive nature of private law firm business over these past few years and an increased pressure from corporations to hold down private law firm rates.
What lawyers do inside a law firm is fairly consistent. They’re given practice-area work by a small group of specialty partners who do similar cases or handle similar types of deals or matters. Especially with larger firms, lawyers are expected to continue learning and get deeper into a specialty or subspecialty, eventually earning a market share of clients and raising their billable hourly rate. What they enjoy most is having a sought-after expertise, working with a collection of all kinds and sizes of clients and not having their eggs all in one basket.
By contrast, in-house lawyers are expected to be knowledgeable in any number of diverse areas of the law. It’s not unusual when I’m taking a search assignment from a corporation to hear clients ask for add-ons that go beyond the job description, such as:
“It would be great if this contract specialist had some employment and labor experiences as well.” Or: “We need primarily litigation and litigation management skill, but the person has to come with some IP or trademark knowledge as well. And maybe a little tax.”
There is also an expectation that in-house attorneys will provide high-quality legal support in a speedy and cost-effective manner. Companies tend to want to have an attorney present throughout decision-making processes to identify possible legal issues, rather than to use private-firm personnel to fix problems after they come up.
Corporate business managers may press their in-house attorney for a “gut reaction” to a pressing question — not always a comfortable situation for some lawyers placed in that hot seat. In most circumstances, in-house attorneys are called on to comment on a far wider variety of issues than would be the case in a law firm.
Private law firm attorneys often tell me they think that moving to in-house practice will be a piece of cake. After all, they act as general counsel for some of their own clients, interacting with their corporate clients every day in all manner and practices. So they feel they’re already in that role. But once they make such a transition, almost every one of them is shocked as to how different it is in actuality, and that being an in-house counsel does take an adjustment.
For the right attorney, the rewards of being in-house are typically the variety of work and the opportunity to, and responsibility of, participating as a team member in the strategy and direction of a company’s growth and success.
What might you do in private practice to prepare yourself for an in-house role? Be curious: Learn everything about the business of your clients, not just their legal issues. Learn clients’ business objectives and be relevant when you speak. Be proactive when making suggestions. Be a problem solver; be useful and helpful beyond the legal skills they expect. A lawyer who helps clients strategically, solves problems and helps them to seize business opportunities — to some extent, on the spot — is a lawyer who can transition successfully to an in-house role.
Oh, and that factor of wanting to leave behind billable hours? Corporations do not respond favorably to this as the reason for a transition. In-house lawyers work similar hours to their counterparts in private firms and are viewed as a business cost, often requiring budget justification. However, they do tend to have a greater amount of control over when and how those hours are worked.
In an interview for an in-house role, you should be able to show that you can work hard and are well-suited, with experience and desire, for a role as a trusted in-house adviser.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Green Pierce is president of Northwest Legal Search Inc. in Portland.
© 2010 Linda Green Pierce