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Why Obama's Lawyers Are Valuable to Legal Departments

Stephanie Forshee Law.com

There's long been a revolving door between the federal government and big law firms. But now that the Obama administration is coming to a close, could his lawyers decamp for in-house legal departments?

It wouldn't be uncharted territory. In the 1990s, a number of U.S. Department of Justice lawyers took jobs as general counsel, blazing a clear-cut trail from government to corporate America. And, in recent years, some of Obama's lawyers have already gone in-house, including former associate attorney general Tony West, who became GC of PepsiCo Inc. in 2014, and Kimberley Harris, a former lawyer in the White House Counsel's Office and now the GC of NBCUniversal Media LLC.

For companies like NBC and Pepsi, there are clear benefits to hiring from the federal government. High-ranking government lawyers, particularly ones coming from the DOJ, have actual experience managing large numbers of lawyers. And they are used to providing actionable advice to busy people, which is great training for counseling top executives.

In an interview with Corporate Counsel, West said that the move makes perfect sense because key skills are easily transferable. "My role is being counselor to the CEO or the board or other executives, which mirrors the role I played in the Justice Department, which was counselor to the attorney general and to other members of the administration on matters of law and policy," he says.

In-House Jobs: Worse Pay, But Plenty of Advantages

Make no mistake: Most government lawyers want to go to law firms. "They've taken a big pay cut to do public service, it's over and they're ready to either go back to or go to that level of compensation," says Deborah Ben-Canaan, a partner with the recruitment firm Major Lindsey & Africa in Washington, D.C.

The bigger a lawyer's name, the bigger the temptation to go the law firm route. That's because division chiefs and other high-ranking officials can command eye-popping salaries. "They have reputations. They could generate a lot of business and can be paid a lot of money because of their name," says C. Thomas Williamson III of the executive recruitment firm Lucas Group. "Somebody coming from the Justice Department who's a high ranking official could go work for a law firm and make well over $1 million."

If the money is so good at law firms, why are we seeing government lawyers become GCs? Their reasons for going in-house aren't too different from the reasons most people go in-house: the ability to have a real impact on an organization, no pressure to develop new clients and often better work-life balance. "A lot of lawyers think in-house is the holy grail of the lawyer position," says Ben-Canaan.

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