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Are You In Or Out? Deciding If The Time Is Right To Go In-House

Are you an associate at a crossroads in your legal career at a law firm — and contemplating going in-house?

You’re not alone. We’ve talked to countless associates who want a change of scenery but aren’t sure in which direction to head. They may be tired of the long law firm hours and desire more of a work-life balance. Or they may want more opportunities to work one-on-one with clients on big matters — instead of feeling like just another cog in the wheel.

Here’s the thing: Although some think it’s the utopia of the legal field, the in-house setting may not be the answer.  Firstly, this move will not necessarily remedy what’s ailing you now at your current firm. What’s more, when you switch too early in your career, you could be setting yourself up for difficulties down the road.

Rather, finding the right law firm and building your portfolio in private practice for a few more years can set you up for greater longevity at an in-house career should you choose to take that path eventually.

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

When considering an in-house move, it’s imperative to understand what this role entails and if it’s truly for you. Undoubtedly, a great in-house position can offer greater responsibility, easier prioritization of projects, and a break from billable hour quotas. There’s no pressure to be a rainmaker and no need to juggle a multitude of (external) clients with different personalities and competing demands.

However, there are other challenges and considerations when pondering the move in-house:

  • You’ll more than likely make less money — for the same amount of effort. Few attorneys who leave their law firms make more as in-house counsel. How will you feel when you’re working just as hard as you were at your firm, but making far less?
  • In-house lawyers tend to be more vulnerable. In a firm, lawyers are what make the business go ‘round; they are its lifeblood. Conversely, in-house legal departments are there to provide support — not generate revenue. As a result, your department may be the first to face layoffs if the company hits hard times — or worse, goes out of business. Working in-house could potentially put you in an unstable career situation.
  • You’ll face new, different pressures. Law firms tend to strive for perfection in all that they do, and they take the time to get it right. But in a corporate environment, faster turnarounds are the norm. You’re expected to come up with great advice quickly. Consider whether you thrive under tight timeframes — or if you buckle under pressure.
  • You might get bored. A firm may have 20 different clients, giving you the opportunity to constantly switch gears and keep your workload interesting. As an in-house counsel, you only have one client: your employer. The sameness of daily tasks can be off-putting and demotivating for some.
  • The hours aren’t as predictable or flexible as you think. Many delve into the corporate legal environment expecting a consistent 9 to 5 schedule, with the flexibility to leave early for doctor’s appointments and baseball games. However, “face time” can be a real requirement and leaving for personal matters often necessitates documenting time off. Also, a company’s needs can be unpredictable and last-minute projects that involve late nights and weekends are not unusual. What’s more, if the company is a large multinational — or in crisis — you could be expected to travel at the drop of a hat.

No Turning Back

There’s another more compelling reason to reconsider going in-house as an associate, one that trumps everything discussed above: Becoming an in-house counsel before you have solid law firm experience under your belt (at least four to five years) could make it virtually impossible for you to ever return to a firm position again.

Here’s the reason why: Your first few years at a firm are geared toward making you an excellent attorney. You’re expected to hit the ground running within a certain practice group and continue cultivating a specialty. Over time, you gain increased responsibility, develop more relationships and even acquire managerial skills that allow you to oversee younger attorneys and legal staff. You also build prowess in handling myriad clients and scenarios.

In a corporate environment, it’s probable that you’ll be developing more of a generalist skillset — you’ll become an attorney who knows something about everything but is an expert in nothing. Keep in mind that a broad set of skills won’t bode too well if you’re ever trying to market yourself to a law firm again. Going for an in-house role causes you to prematurely veer off the law firm growth and development track. If you decide to go back to the firm environment, the skills you had acquired in an in-house position are not likely to align with the demands of the new firm. It’s a much better strategy to wait until you’ve hit the “ceiling” at a firm and cannot progress any further in your career. With more experience under your belt and — even better — partner status, you could more easily transition into a more lucrative role at a company.

Look Before Your Leap

  • If an in-house gig is on your future radar, there are things you can do now to prepare yourself for a successful transition while you remain in the law firm setting:
  • Start focusing on business development for your firm. Relationships are key in the legal field; leveraging the connections you’ve cultivated over time cannot only reflect well and potentially produce business at your firm, it can give you a solid “in” to a company once you’re ready to move in-house.
  • Work on honing your emotional intelligence (EQ) skills through coaching. EQ is more essential in a corporate environment where you will be engaging in meetings and team building and interacting with department members and stakeholders.
  • Talk to recruiters as well as to peers who are working as lawyers in different environments. Not all firms are created equal. Do your research and find one that speaks to who you are as an attorney and as an individual.

Don’t be quick to assume that all lawyers in-house are deliriously happy while firm lawyers are suffering miserably. From culture to how matters are staffed, there are many factors that go into a work environment, regardless of whether it’s a firm or a company. And the fact is there are many law firms out there that could remedy the pains you’re feeling at your current firm without necessitating a move to the corporate setting. What matters most is finding an organization that’s a good fit for your interests, strengths, and personality, along with work that you love.

 

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