General counsel roles are often looked at as the “holy grail” in a lawyer’s career. These roles are finite—and tend to be highly desirable and extremely competitive. Organizations in need of a GC can often be picky, looking not only for previous in-house, industry and management experience but also the right cultural fit. When a general counsel role becomes available, there is typically a long list of exceptional candidates interested in and vying for the role.
For some law firm partners, there is a desire to move into a general counsel position and an assumption that their status and experience will automatically translate into this role. While this can happen on occasion, it is unfortunately not the norm. This doesn’t mean a law firm partner cannot go in-house, however; they may just need to adjust their expectations in terms of timing, career path and compensation. If you are a law firm partner looking to move in-house, here are some things you may want to consider in order to determine whether an in-house role will bring you the satisfaction you think it will.
Things to Consider with a Move In-House
- You’re making the shift from revenue generator to overhead expense. Lawyers who are new to the corporate environment might be surprised at the notion that the legal department is overhead and doesn’t typically contribute to revenue. “Business culture and law firm culture are vastly different,” says Mary Jane Saunders, GC of Beer Institute, who was a partner at a prestigious firm before going in-house. “While partners in a firm are put on a pedestal, a company lawyer is considered a cost center.”
According to Saunders, a GC coming in from the outside must find a way to bring value to the company by providing indispensable and sought-after legal counsel. Value is found in being a true business partner to the business and C-suite.
Surrendering your role as a revenue generator often means surrendering the degree of control you have over your own destiny. As in-house counsel, frequently you are not in the driver’s seat when it comes to making decisions. Being a law firm partner with a successful, revenue-generating practice may give you greater decision-making authority than you would have in a corporation—and a greater ability to steer the course of your own career.
- You’ll have fewer support resources. The firm environment is typically set up to enable partners to practice at the highest level, with ample support staff and the latest software tools. But in a corporate environment, being a cost center also means you’re last in line for wish-list items. You may not always get approval to buy what you need—including technology that makes your job easier.
Depending on the organization, in-house resources can be scarce—and sometimes headcounts shrink unexpectedly. While some GCs are blessed with an executive assistant, others may have to share an assistant (and do their own photocopying). GCs must shift their thinking from being a solo practitioner to operating as part of a team unit.
- There’s a learning curve. Many seasoned law firm partners are shocked when they go in-house and realize they have much yet to learn. “One of the mistakes litigators make when looking for a partner-level position in-house is they think they don’t need to know much about the actual business,” says Saunders. “But you can’t come in completely blind. In-house, you have to have a substantive base, whether in law or business.”
Partners who enter as GCs typically don’t have a long ramp-up period. Rather, it’s the proverbial trial by fire. “You have to be able to hit the ground running and learn as you go.”
- Your job as a lawyer will change. As a GC, you have to think about the lawyer role in a completely new way. You become a partner to the organization versus being an outside party. In this capacity, you have to be concerned about business, reputational and financial risk as well as legal risk to the business.
“In a law firm, you’re doing the job you were trained to do,” says Liz Sacksteder, partner at Paul Weiss. “But a senior in-house role requires a lot of skills they don’t teach you in law school, like building consensus, management, and working with a financial team, external auditors, investor relations and the press. And you have to advise on matters that are way outside your expertise and comfort zone, so key attributes include the ability to get up to speed quickly and provide a definitive recommendation in real time.”
The GC role can involve more responsibility than a law firm partnership, including many areas that aren’t purely legal and have a direct impact on the business. For some lawyers, this is a big plus. “Learning on the fly was one of the things I found energizing,” says Sacksteder, who went in-house for 12 years and then back to the law firm environment. “I feel like I’m a much better professional today because of it.”
Saunders and Sacksteder agree that the GC role is a good fit for partners who are truly interested in learning the ins and outs of a business organization. Sacksteder also points out that communication skills are a must. “In-house, you need to have good interpersonal skills and the ability to build consensus. You’re working with a variety of different people every day—including non-lawyers at all levels of the organization.”
- You’ll face new kinds of pressures. Law firms tend to strive for perfection in all they do, and they take the time to get it right. But in a corporate setting, tight timeframes are the norm. You’re expected to make decisions and come up with sage advice quickly—even if you don’t have all of the relevant information on hand. This can be a challenge for partners who don’t perform well under pressure—or are perfectionists intent on delivering A+ work all of the time.
“You have to be willing to make a decision and accept the consequences if that decision turns out to be the wrong one,” Saunders explains. “As a GC, it’s more about getting it done. This doesn’t mean you don’t care about quality, but the speed of the job is innately different. You have to be a risk taker in the context of the business.”
GCs often have to navigate between management and the board of directors and can find themselves in the difficult position of delivering bad—and unwelcome—news to stakeholders. The nature of the role has led to a stereotype of in-house lawyers being obstructionists whose job it is to say no. This perception—even if it’s not aligned with reality—can be a tough pill to swallow.
- The hours aren’t necessarily shorter. Many delve into the corporate legal realm expecting a consistent 9-to-5 schedule, with increased flexibility. However, as Saunders has learned, “I don’t work fewer hours in-house than I did in the law firm world. As a GC, you’ll know when meetings are scheduled, but you can’t foresee what critical and urgent issues will rear their heads—or when.”
A company’s needs can be unpredictable, and last-minute projects that involve late nights and weekends are not unusual. Moreover, if the company is large and multinational—or in the midst of a crisis—you could be expected to travel at a moment’s notice.
Explains Sacksteder, “The rhythm is very different in-house. You have a huge portfolio and you’re going from meeting to meeting all day long. Some of them involve substantive legal work, but others are more management-oriented. You have to embrace your management responsibilities because in a way, you are running your own law firm, and you have to do it on a budget. ”
How to Make the Move In-House
Despite its nuances, the in-house environment can bring a new level of exhilaration and career satisfaction to some. “There is a certain excitement about being in a senior role where you’re responsible for an entire portfolio of problems,” says Sacksteder. “You can see how all the pieces fit together and have to try to figure out how to manage the issues holistically.”
Many lawyers enjoy the opportunity to learn how a business works, which can be appealing to people with an entrepreneurial streak, and also that they do not have to be in sales mode all the time. “I really enjoy the work; I work hard and exercise my brain a lot,” explains Saunders. “It’s a different kind of challenge to be the decision-maker and the responsible party in a big legal department.”
If you’re interested in an in-house role, it’s a good idea to talk with an experienced recruiter who can help you determine if this is the right decision for you—both personally and professionally. Many organizations want solid in-house experience before appointing a lawyer as GC. Considering a lower-level position in-house and working your way up could better prepare you for the demands of the role.
Also, keep in mind that relationships are key in the legal field. Working the connections you’ve cultivated over the years can give you a solid “in” to a company once you’re ready to make the transition. Law firm partners can oftentimes have strong relationships with clients who would be thrilled to hire them in-house. These clients know the partner’s strengths and are often less rigid about making sure the skill sets are a 100 percent match—they just know the partner is smart and capable and would be a terrific addition to their team.
Finding a Better Opportunity
If you find that moving in-house is not the right option for you, or if finding the right in-house fit within your geographical requirements proves elusive, you may want to consider exploring opportunities with a different law firm. Sometimes the desire to move in-house is presaged by dissatisfaction with some aspect of your current job. Not all law firms are the same; it is possible you could find what you are looking for—e.g., a different culture, a different platform, greater autonomy or leadership opportunities, etc.—at another firm.
Whether it’s a law firm or legal department, what matters most is finding an organization that’s a synergistic fit with your personality, strengths and career aspirations.