By Melissa A. Peters, Esq., Guest Contributor
More and more lawyers are looking to transition from the law firm environment to the in-house world. The desire to “go in-house” seems to have a consistent theme – lawyers feel that they have no control over their schedules at a law firm. It is not just that they have to work long hours, but that the hours are often unpredictable. In fact, many lawyers report that often times they are searching for work to do to keep their billables high, but yet, they are still sitting at the office for long hours. The need to keep “face time” and to be there when a client emergency arises is one of the factors that makes these lawyers stay at their desks, and that lack of control over their schedules is motivating lawyers to want to go in-house.
It is ironic that so many lawyers find themselves motivated to go in-house, because while attending law school, the main focus is on landing the best, highest-paying law firm job! As a law student, you spent time looking for the right law firm job that would give you prestige, sophisticated work, and top-notch compensation. You likely assessed the geography of where you wanted to practice and whether you wanted to be a corporate lawyer or a litigator (because in law school, you somehow believe that those are the only two types of lawyers that exist!) You probably also did some soul-searching about whether you wanted to work for a large, national firm or a smaller, regional firm. If you were really motivated, you may have even realized (unlike myself) that there are practice areas other than corporate and litigation, and maybe you planned to work in real estate or trusts & estates or family law. The one thing you likely did not assess is whether you wanted to be an in-house lawyer.
It is equally ironic that you spend so much of your time in law school identifying and preparing for the right law firm job, only to learn that after a few short years at such law firms, the conversation often turns to how to “go in-house”. As an executive legal recruiter, I have conversations every day with lawyers who want to go in-house. Very often those sentiments are coming from well-credentialed, high-earning associates at top law firms – the very jobs that we covet and aim for in law school!! So why the growing trend to find in-house jobs, when we have finally landed those lauded law firm gigs?
First and foremost, most law firm attorneys want to go in-house because they have grown weary of the law firm lifestyle. They tell me that they are working too many hours and have to be in the office too long most days. If you add a commute on top of those long hours, it can really wear you down. There is a belief, specifically amongst associates, that going in-house is the “mecca” because it will give you back some semblance of a work/life balance. I continually hear from law firm associates and partners that they will take significant pay cuts and even withstand lengthy commutes to make the transition from law firm to in-house.
Another factor at play is that many lawyers believe that all law firms are created equal. So if they are experiencing some dissatisfaction at their firms, they feel that the only resolution is to go in-house. As a recruiter, I can tell you that law firms really are not all similar, but it is hard to recognize those differences when you are the one working so hard at a firm and not feeling career satisfaction. Your view of law firms can become very myopic and jaded because you assume that most firms operate in the same way and that culture will not vary from firm to firm. Associates frequently tell me that although they are unhappy at their firms, they will not consider going to another firm because it’s more of the same. So they stay and stick it out, while telling me that they will consider huge pay cuts and relocation to get an in-house position. Notably, many of these lawyers are even willing to cover the cost of relocation on their own in order to go in-house!
A third factor that accounts for the growing interest in in-house positions is that lawyers are tired of billing their time. Accounting for your work life in .25 increments can become tiresome and demanding, and that burden is often times removed when you go in-house.
It should be said that it is not just associates who are interested in going in-house these days. We have definitely seen an upward trend in partners and counsel at law firms who are willing to leave behind large base salaries and their own “books of business” to join companies. Keeping track of billable hours plagues partners as well, and the increasing pressure to produce business at firms is making many seasoned lawyers start to evaluate in-house options.
In-house lawyers who made the transition from law firms to companies when they were still associates report that they feel more control over their schedules than they did at the law firms. The one consistent response I hear from in-house attorneys is that although they may not work less than they did at law firms, they do have a more predictable work schedule. They tell me that they can make social plans ahead of time, and can usually keep those plans – something that did not happen at their law firms. At companies, in-house lawyers feel that they have a better sense of what their day is going to look like, and what is on their to-do list. For most in-house lawyers, that sense of predictability is worth any trade-off they made relative to compensation and dreams of becoming a law firm partner.
Predictability is not “easier” or “better” – the hours worked by in-house lawyers can be even longer than firm lawyers. Climbing the ranks within a company can be just as pressured and protracted as the partnership track at firms and changes in executive management at a company can impact job security. Additionally, although going in-house may give you more predictability in your daily schedule, it may also add substantial travel requirements to your life. In essence, the generic idea of “going in-house” as a quick fix for your law firm problems is not sound. A decision to move in-house requires research, reflection and analysis. Conversations with family, friends and a legal search professional who is knowledgeable about the in house market is essential. You really need to take the time to assess your motivation to go in-house, identify criteria that are important to you and make sure the in-house position you find satisfies your criteria.
Melissa A. Peters, Esq. is Managing Director at Princeton Legal Search Group. She focuses exclusively on the permanent placement of lawyers in law firm and in-house settings across a wide range of industries. She can be reached at 609.734.7490 and firstname.lastname@example.org.