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Finding the Greener Grass—The Ins and Outs of Going In-House

By Bettina Elias Siegel

When life at a firm seems particularly grim and a headhunter calls with an in-house opportunity, the temptation to jump ship immediately can be strong. I say this from experience—I had begun interviewing for an in-house job as early as my second year at a megafirm and ultimately left at the end of my third. However, looking back, I now see that there would have been significant advantages to sticking it out longer—specifically, I had no idea how untethered I would come to feel after leaving my megafirm. As an associate, I’d always struggled to find the “right” answer and had been uncomfortable with any ambiguity. Once I left for an in-house position with a comic book publisher, however, I no longer had ready access to the same wide array of legal research materials, but not every question brought to my door was worthy of the time and expense of seeking outside counsel. So, in most cases, I had to make quick decisions based on nothing more than my prior—and quite limited—legal experience and my own gut instincts. Although I had been hired by the company for my expertise in a narrow practice area, I was now being called on to perform more as a generalist, spending only a small amount of my time on intellectual property law, the area in which I had the most training. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to learn to fly by the seat of one’s pants, but it would have been far easier if I’d stayed at the megafirm for a few more years, garnering more experience and seasoning.

Although there’s no “right” time to make the switch, Suzette Simon Rubinstein, executive managing director at The Artemis Group Ltd., a New York recruiting firm, advises associates to remain at a law firm for at least four or five years before going in-house. “In general,” she says, “the training tends to be better for younger lawyers at a firm than it is in-house, and developing hands-on legal skills before going in-house is usually a prerequisite for obtaining an in-house position.” The size of the in-house legal department you’re considering may also dictate how much experience you should already have under your belt. The vice president and associate general counsel at an educational services company (whom I’ll call Tracy) cautions, “For a small legal department you need to come in with strong skills. It would be very hard to train anybody in a small department.”

There used to be a perception that a lawyer could stay at a firm too long before making an in-house move, but this may no longer be the case. Karen says that at both her current and previous in-house jobs, the companies “actively looked for fairly senior people to hire—young partner level and above, if they could get it. They wanted people who could be basically completely autonomous in their own specialty.” And Rubinstein, the legal recruiter, notes, “One trend that I have noticed in the last decade or so is that quite senior partners are leaving firms that they may have spent 25 or 30 years at to assume general counsel positions. This didn’t happen as frequently in the past.”

For litigators, Rubinstein notes that “companies generally want an attorney who at a minimum has taken and defended depositions, argued motions in court, conducted internal investigations, and ideally participated in a meaningful way in trials and/or administrative hearings.” Even when seeking non-litigation positions within a corporation, associates with litigation experience may have something extra to bring to the table. An in-house lawyer at a luxury consumer goods company (I’ll call her Elaine) says that when working on transactional matters, “thinking about litigation changes your approach. Someone who doesn’t have a litigation background might not appreciate the significance of the nuances of the language. When you’ve seen as a litigator how things can fall apart, you can serve your clients better with better drafting up front.” Tracy also advises, “Make sure you counsel clients. It seems like an obvious piece of advice, but if you’re at a really big firm, you might not be counseling anybody, you might be back in some room doing document production, and that’s not going to help you going in-house. You need client contact.”

Once you’ve determined that you’re ready to leave the law firm, you’ll need to think about the industry sector in which you want to work, and here I would caution young associates to avoid being overly swayed by the apparent “glamour” of particular jobs. For example, the comic book publishing house where I first worked had all the trappings of a “fun” job—a casual dress code, a superhero embossed on my business cards, a five-foot-long, inflatable character suspended from the ceiling in my office—but most of my time there I churned out standard licensing and distribution contracts, none of which presented particularly scintillating legal issues. At first, the thrill of having my weekends free more than made up for any boredom, but gradually I began to feel a bit lost professionally because I was no longer using many of the skills I’d worked so hard to develop at the megafirm. In contrast, the consumer products company where I worked next was staid and hierarchical, but every day it presented me with a wide range of clients and issues, and I had to get up to speed quickly on areas of the law that were entirely new to me. This kept me engaged and stimulated in a way that the comic book job never could.

Another key factor in one’s potential happiness as an in-house lawyer is the size of the company and its legal department. Whether you prefer working at a smaller outfit or large corporation is largely a matter of personality and working style.

Rubinstein observes: “There is likely to be more mentoring and greater professional support in a larger legal department. On the other hand, a larger legal department may be more hierarchical and a relatively junior attorney may not obtain as much responsibility as he or she would like and can handle. In a smaller legal department, a more junior lawyer may be given substantially more responsibility and interact more regularly with senior executives at the company.” But she goes on to note that “a smaller company and legal department may not have as complex or interesting legal issues.” So, while one size doesn’t fit all, size does make a difference—and only you can decide which environment will be best for you.

In addition to finding the right-sized environment for your needs, you need to be aware that once you go in-house, one of the biggest challenges you’re likely to face is learning to think like a businessperson and to tailor your advice to fit the business strategies of your new employer. This can often be a difficult transition for the law firm associate who has been trained over the years to advise clients cautiously. Says Tracy, an educational services lawyer, “You can see that people who have only been in a firm aren’t always sensitive and don’t always get it. You can’t give the ideal conservative advice all the time—you just can’t.” Elaine warns, “You may sometimes be pushed outside of your comfort zone. You wouldn’t give advice that you think is wrong, but you may sometimes have to say, ‘Okay, you can try this, there’s a basis for it.’ An outside firm can afford to be conservative, and if the company doesn’t like the advice, they can disregard it. But inside, you do have to take the needs of the business into account.”

In-house counsel also has to be prepared to cope with some measure of pressure from the business side. Elaine notes, “At a firm, when you give advice to a company as outside counsel, the client’s not going to get mad at you if they don’t like it, they’re not going to say you’re not a team player. It’s like you’re giving advice in a vacuum. But when you’re inside, there’s much more pressure to align your advice with the company’s business needs, and there’s much more at stake for you personally. It’s your job as the in-house lawyer to act as a go-between and make the advice of the outside lawyer work for the company’s business needs. It’s a tougher position to be in.”

One obvious benefit at the in-house job is no longer having to account for one’s time minute by minute. “I was on sort of a high for the first six months, not having to bill,” says Tracy. “I couldn’t believe it.” Not having to bill has other benefits, like encouraging greater efficiencies. “I like finding ways to do things quickly,” Tracy says, “and I felt like, in-house, that was finally rewarded. At a firm, you were damned either way you worked—it was either too long or too short, and you always had to think about that.” In-house, she notes, it’s only advantageous “if you can do something quickly or figure out a better way to do it.”

Some in-house lawyers find relief at escaping the need to drum up business at and/or manage the business of a law firm, burdens that would have only increased the longer they stayed at a firm. As Tracy put it, “If I wanted to be in business, I didn’t want to be in the business of a law firm.” And finally, perhaps most importantly, all of the in-house lawyers with whom I spoke unanimously cited the rewards of working closely with a business and being directly connected to and invested in their client’s failures and successes. They felt part of a team in a way that hadn’t been possible within a law firm.

So if this article finds you having the same concerns that I once did about the grueling demands of the law firm life, I encourage you to consider the switch as well. But don’t act precipitously; think carefully about your own needs, likes, and dislikes; and have a realistic understanding of the trade-offs. You’re likely to find that, in many ways, the grass really is greener on the in-house side.

Keywords: lifestyle, career development, going in-house, litigation

Bettina Elias Siegel is an attorney residing in Houston, Texas, where she currently works as a freelance writer.

This article was adapted from a longer one that was published in the Summer 2009 issue of Litigation.

  • January 15, 2010 – Great article! I've been working in-house for a couple of years in a Brazilian Group, with a mid-sized Legal Dept, after coming from several years of law firm work. The whole process of learning to see the issues from the business' perspective is very interesting and exciting, not to mention the significant difference, compared to the law firm approach.


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