The great debate of many attorneys, as they make their way down their career path, is to decide if they will stay at their law firm or make the leap to an in-house role. There are a variety of factors to think about when considering the transition:
Timing: Am I truly ready to make the move? Do I want to leave the practice I have built-up, the clients, colleagues and staff I have established relationships with, and most importantly, will I discover I secretly love billable hours? The reality is, there usually is no perfect time to make a transition in-house and, yes, work product will be judged in a different way. The good news is that new relationships await, and change can be good, so long as there is an understanding going in, that there will likely be a notable adjustment period.
Practice Area: Most in-house roles are of the transactional type (classic Intellectual Property and Employment Law are the general practice area exceptions). Litigation roles tend to be found within large organizations only, and often come with a management piece attached. The fact is, some attorneys simply will not have the opportunity to go in-house because of the type of law they practice.
Opportunity: Going into a company can change a lawyer’s career path because it can expose one to potentially significant management responsibilities, organizational charts of opportunity, compliance and regulations, exposure to the inner-workings of a specific business or industry, and the chance to work with folks outside of legal. Rarely in a law firm is an attorney able to enhance their professional skills and business knowledge outside of their specific practice area in such developmental ways. This can lead to promotions in or out of a legal department, as well as opportunities at other organizations in the future, since many companies want their lawyers to have ‘in-house experience’ when hiring for their senior-level positions.
Compensation: With no cap at law firms, generally, it can be hard to justify moving in-house, perceiving a significant pay-cut awaits. However, when you start to add in health benefits and deferred compensation (e.g., bonuses; 401k/match; stock; equity), the annual out of pocket cost comparison and long-term benefits can weigh more positively on the in-house role. As a savvy and successful General Counsel of a public company once stated, “A salary pays the bills, but bonuses and deferred compensation pay for college and build wealth.” And, although this is often overstated as a pro-in-house argument, calculating how much money a lawyer at a firm is earning per hour worked can be eye-opening.
Control: Within a law firm, the revenue drivers are the lawyers. At a company, the legal department is usually perceived as a service provider, responding to the needs of the business (and mostly considered ‘overhead’). Sometimes this can be a very difficult adjustment for a lawyer, especially given a history of often being in charge, and driving a book of business/clientele without a lot of outside weigh-in. Within a company and legal department, specifically if it is publicly traded, the compliance and regulatory aspects can dictate every decision, which can be vastly different from working as a lawyer within a firm. Additionally, how a legal department is perceived by the C-Suite and business units can be critical to an in-house attorney’s job satisfaction. Are you a business partner who sits at the table when making strategic business decisions, or seen as merely a reactionary hurdle after decisions have been made and/or legal issues have percolated? Of course, this varies widely from one company to the next.
Permanency: Many attorneys are – by nature – somewhat risk-adverse. Moving in-house can be perceived as a significant risk (or even a leap of faith into the unknown), however, it is becoming less and less common to stay within the same organization for more than a few years. And, although they do not specifically account for lawyers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds 10 different jobs before age 40 (although nearly half were from ages 18-24), and this number is projected to grow. Forrester Research predicts that today’s youngest workers will hold 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetime. Experienced attorneys can do their own math to figure out where they fall within the stat but, regardless, job transitions are occurring more frequently than in the past, and it’s highly unlikely that the first non-law firm organization a lawyer transitions to will be the last.
Whether it’s timing, practice area and opportunity, compensation, control or permanency, weighing the decision to move in-house can be stressful and complicated. However, there is no ‘best’ or ‘worst’ choice, and it is a very individually-based analysis and decision. Regardless, being open to new and different career opportunities often results in an unintended, honest, and comparative investigation of one’s current job satisfaction. And, regardless of the outcome, isn’t that worth exploring?