Should I Go In-House? Maybe

Recruiters and law firm leaders say the recent dissolution of several prominent law firms has flooded the lateral market with attorneys in need of employment. And uncertain financial futures at a number of firms are prodding many attorneys to consider their options elsewhere.

So, is this a time to go in-house?

Corporate lawyer-turned-law career consultant Cheryl Heisler explores the pros and cons in this essay for LawyerAvenue:

It was once in vogue for big firm lawyers to look down their noses at in-house counsel positions. The work was viewed as “less challenging”; the salary treated as “paltry”, and the pace billed negatively as a “life-style choice.” How times have changed!

While most in-house attorneys still earn less than their law firm counterparts (General Counsel not withstanding,) the irony is that on an hourly basis – and in terms of overall job satisfaction – they come out way ahead.

In my career consulting practice, I see far fewer in-house attorneys than I do firm lawyers, and their issues usually arise out of corporate bureaucracy, crazy bosses and layoffs than their actual dislike of legal practice. What I most often hear from in-house lawyers is that they basically like what they do.

* They have greater control over their schedules than their firm counterparts.
* They develop on-going relationships with their company “clients,” allowing for easier dialogue about how both business and legal issues can be satisfactorily resolved.
* They really enjoy knowing and understanding what makes the business tick, and they like being able to offer proactive legal advice. In fact, they like the business issues so much that they try and negotiate their way over to the business side, willingly trading in their time sheets for spreadsheets.

On the other hand …

From my experience, in-house lawyers start to experience major frustration when the corporate “crap” hits the fan. In larger companies, multiple reorganizations, constantly changing management, and endless projects, directives, and peer reviews can drive an in-house attorney nuts. Since most in-house counsel spent some part of their formative training in law firms, they remember the joy of not having to handle this kind of administrivia while in private practice. Sure, they had to keep time sheets, but many corporations still require their lawyers to “bill” or at least account for how they spend their time so that doesn’t count as a trade-off.

In-house lawyers are also frustrated by the increased levels of job insecurity. Especially in this economy.

If you are a firm lawyer, with good legal skills and control a fair amount of business, you will always work. Not so on the corporate side. Even if you are a great lawyer, with superior client relationships, you are only as safe as the state of the business for which you work. In other words, if your business tanks, or gets merged or bought out, you can pretty accurately predict that your services will no longer be needed.

It may feel better to know that you lost your job for business reasons rather than for personal ones, but once you’re on the street the reality is the same. Even worse, prospective corporate employers often identify you with the industry for which you last worked. If your last in-house job was with a manufacturing company, you may be branded as someone who can only work in manufacturing. Same for insurance, health-care, financial services, or real estate. Finally, in-house attorneys, no matter how well-respected, will always be an expense and never a profit center. When the times call for cost-cutting, as is happening now, legal becomes an attractive target. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The first thing we do, is let’s fire all the lawyers.”

Things could be worse

If you are an unhappy in-house lawyer, you should know that there are dozens of miserable law firm attorneys who at this very moment covet your position. That may not be much consolation, but it is interesting to know. It also doesn’t explain why your search can be tough. Let’s start with the obvious; if you’ve been in-house for some time, you probably don’t have much of a book of business, making you fairly unattractive to the law firm market. The exception is if you do leave your job with a chunk of the company’s legal business. Then you have MUCH to offer to a firm and they will likely come courting you. Either way, if you already left private practice in the hopes that corporate law would offer a better fit for you, then you probably don’t want to go back in the law firm direction.

If you are hoping to transition to another in-house position, expect another set of obstacles. The industry you come from sticks like Velcro, and it may be tough to break out away. Making matters worse, if you are moving because your current industry has experienced cutbacks, other companies in the industry are probably feeling the same pinch, and jobs will be tight across the market. Also, as we’ve seen with other segments of the legal population, the more experienced (and expensive) you are, the fewer the slots available.

Watch out for red flags

Another strange component of the corporate legal market is that the longer you have been with any one company, the less desirable you are as a lateral hire. You may have all the expertise in the world, but if you haven’t put that expertise to work in assorted roles for a variety of companies you may be perceived as complacent/not a “go-getter.” A future employer may wonder if you will be too set in the ways of your former company to ever adapt to the ways of the new organization.

In-house legal departments are often quite close-knit, making breaking-in difficult. Sometimes you have to interview with, and be liked by, everyone in an existing group before you can even move on to the next level. As a job hunter, this should be a red flag. Joining a department where “group think” is the required norm may prove to be a little confining.

Even in the best of times, corporate hiring can move excruciatingly slowly. You can’t just meet the legal department over lunch and join the gang. HR has to get involved. There may be personality or assessment or drug tests to take. Maybe background checks. There will certainly be references required. If a recruiter was involved, there will be fees to be considered. Your compensation package will have to fit within the appropriate “band,” meaning that you can’t get paid that much more or less than anyone else at your level. And then there is always the infuriating “internal candidate” who shows up at the 11th hour and gets priority consideration.

Despite all the hang-ups, in-house attorneys with whom I consulted did choose to stay in-house and did manage to re-connect with other legal departments. Their searches did take a while, though, and often involved relocation and a decrease in compensation.

– Heisler (www.Lawternatives.com), a Chicago-based law career consultant.

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