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Is Practicing Law In-House Better? The Two Sides of the Coin

Career satisfaction derives from filling a wide range of desires, and every individual partner defines satisfaction differently—with happiness and satisfaction tied more often to “soft” factors like lifestyle or practice fit than compensation. In fact, more often than not, partners grapple with balancing the intense demands of a busy legal practice with the desire to spend more time with family, friends or other outside activities. After all, no one ever reached the end of their days and said, “Gee, I wish I’d just billed that one more hour.” Inevitably, once the conversation turns to work-life balance, the partner ends up stating some form of “I’d really like to hear about in-house opportunities.”

In-house is the Holy Grail, the Promised Land and the Shangri-La of the practice of law—at least that is the perception of many. But is it truly the Asgard (last mythological reference, for my Marvel fans) of the practice of law? Here are the five most common motivations that partners cite for wanting to move in-house—and a little food for thought:

1. There is no pressure to generate business in-house

In-house attorneys are by-and-large not responsible for generating work. In-house attorneys are task oriented and not required to market to win outside clients. On the surface, this may be pleasing to think about because generating business is difficult and not all attorneys are adept at sales. However, the simple beauty of business generation is that it is an obvious indicator of a partner’s value proposition.

Ultimately, a corporation looks to each department for a value proposition. A corporate legal department is a pure cost center, and in the corporate world, expenses are heavily scrutinized.  An in-house lawyer does not generate revenue to cover expenses, and in many cases, the pieces of legal work that provide the most obvious value—the company litigation or the highly accretive acquisition—are outsourced to outside counsel with the corporate legal staff overseeing, rather than handling, the matter.  So how does a corporate legal department prove its value proposition?

The successful in-house counsel has to work very hard to articulate his or her value proposition. He or she needs to build relationships with internal stakeholders who will support that articulation because, at the end of the day, in-house attorneys cannot tie their performance to something as straightforward as top-line revenue generation. So while an attorney is not selling externally, there is a level of internal sales that an in-house counsel needs to do to prove his or her value.

2. It would be nice to only have one client.

The life of a law firm partner with a diverse book of clients can be very demanding. One of the attractions of practicing in-house is that there is only one client. With one client, a lawyer can focus on getting to know that client inside and out. They can also have the opportunity to provide the full spectrum of legal services to this one client, not usually dedicated to a single practice area.

For those who enjoy working with a variety of different clients, this can become mundane. Also, a diversified set of clients will mitigate the risks associated with having only one client—or even several clients within an industry. On the in-house side, there is no such mitigation. If an in-house counsel’s corporation hits a rough patch and the work is not there, or if a major transaction results in the sale of a business unit or subsidiary that generates much of an in-house counsel’s workload, there can be consequences to one’s compensation or job. Remember, an in-house legal department is a pure cost center.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this truism: One of the best things about being in-house is that you only have one client … and one of the worst things about being in-house is that you only have one client.

3. I’d like to get away from law firm politics/nasty co-workers.

Lawyers can be argumentative, abrasive and aggressive. They can be difficult to work with and be around if one is not wired the same way, and it can make for a work environment that’s not for everyone. There are also politics in law firms that add to the grind.

However, a lot of this is simply human nature. While aggressive behavior in some cases can be more prevalent with more overtly forceful personalities, aggressive behavior comes in many different forms and in more than just the legal industry.

With respect to office politics, the higher you rise in a corporation, the more important it is to be politically adept—lest one hitch one’s wagon to the wrong horse and lose out in a not-infrequent contest between two executives for one promotion. And at the highest level in a corporation (the C-suite), general counsel not only manage a legal staff but also must navigate the world of C-suite executives and, in many cases, the board room.

4. I’d like a better lifestyle/less pressure.

The absence of the billable hour (in most cases) and the pressure to build business may indeed result in fewer pressure points. But the same deadline-oriented tasks are just as present in-house as they are anywhere else. For transactional attorneys, deals or quarterly filings, respectively, can be just as demanding as in a law firm—with higher stakes, depending on the size of the deal.

While the hours may be more predictable most days, in-house counsel are expected to be in the office during business hours. The flexibility to come and go as needed may not exist in a corporation where all employees are held to the same standard.

Finally, many attorneys should ask themselves whether they are truly wired to put less pressure on themselves. Practicing law is demanding, and certain personality traits—diligence, tenacity, persistence and drive—are necessary to succeed. Those same traits may also lead lawyers to put pressure on themselves regardless of the work environment.

5. I’d like to be on the business side.

Sometimes a partner asks about in-house opportunities because he or she wants to eventually transition to the business side. Unfortunately, that transition is very difficult for a variety of reasons. For one, in the corporate world, it is difficult to get out of an assigned lane; attorneys are always seen as attorneys. Others can be put off or even threatened by an attorney moving to the business side. Furthermore, attorneys lack the training that others receive in school or in the corporate world, and a lack of respect can result. Finally, in the corporate hierarchy, it is far more common and expected for people on the business side to come up through the ranks; lateral moves in a corporate structure are possible but difficult and rare.

The most strategic way to make this transition is by starting in a law firm and building close relationships with a client’s business team. Those relationships can help facilitate the transition to their team much more than transitioning from the legal department to an internal business department.

There are two sides to every coin, and for all the benefits that come with an in-house position, there is an equally long list of benefits for lawyers in private practice. Take the time to consider all your options before making this complicated, personal and nuanced choice. The right path for you may be the one you are already on.

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