We frequently get calls from attorneys at firms looking to move to an in-house counsel position. While we have placed many attorneys at their dream job in-house, we also get calls from unhappy in-house attorneys looking to make a move. Attorneys at firms often envision an in-house position as a promised land free from the sometimes-dreaded billable hour and the demands of many clients. While moving in-house can be an excellent and wise move for some attorneys, it can also have its downsides, depending on the company. As in any decision-making process, it is best to understand the full picture before you jump into a new position or discount your current situation. Having a better understanding of the pros and cons of in-house practice will help you make a more informed decision when considering a move. Here are several aspects of working as in-house counsel to consider before making a big move.
WORKING FOR ONE “CLIENT”
Pros: Many attorneys look to in-house jobs as a relief from the constant struggle to balance multiple clients or cases. Unlike firm life, at an in-house position you have one “client” – the company which employs you. A move in-house can offer freedom from the need to originate new business that is frequently present in law firms.
Cons: Having only one client in a firm practice can leave you vulnerable to the potential demands or losses of that client Working in-house can lead to similar vulnerability. Many things outside of your control can put your job at risk. For example, companies merge or experience downturns that can leaving the best attorneys without a next step. In-house attorneys need to be consistently thinking about their next step in case a next step is required.
Pros: One of the main reasons people desire an in-house position is that some in-house positions can offer attorneys a better work-life balance than firms do. Some in-house attorneys work a steady 9 to 5 job, perhaps with every other Friday off. In addition, in-house attorneys may enjoy longer, uninterrupted vacations.
Cons: In-house attorneys can be more overworked than firm attorneys. In-house attorneys are often required to report to multiple departments and can have extremely demanding roles. One of the benefits of the billable hour is that clients can see exactly how many hours you are working and pay you accordingly. In contrast, in-house attorneys can be given hefty workloads without increased compensation.
FUTURE JOB OPTIONS
Pros: In-house positons can lead to great future opportunities, especially if you would like to extend your legal career into more business-oriented roles. Further, if you are interested in moving out of state to other markets, especially later in your legal career, in-house positions can offer opportunities that firm practice cannot. Even the best books of business struggle to cross state lines, making out-of-state moves difficult for successful attorneys in private practice.
Cons: Moving in-house has the potential to curtail job opportunities if you want to stay local in the future. If you are an attorney with a portable book of business working for a firm, you often have opportunities to switch firms and bring your business with you. That portability also allows you to have more bargaining power when it comes to job negotiations. In contrast, if you are an excellent securities attorney practicing at a company in Phoenix, for example, it can be very difficult to find an open securities position at another local company because the position is so highly specialized. Furthermore, while attorneys often can move from a firm positon to an in-house positon, it is rare to see an in-house attorney move to a law firm after they are six or more years into their legal career.
Pros: Value can be calculated in many different ways depending on the type of business and company culture. Law firms tend to focus, at least in part, on billable hours and collections. Attorneys who struggle in firms can excel in other environments.
Cons: Billable time can be a curse and a blessing. If you are working hard in a firm environment and putting in many hours, your efforts will likely be noticed, tracked, and rewarded. If you are originating work, that too will often be tracked and rewarded. It can be more difficult to show your value in in-house positions where expectations and value may not be as clearly determined.
The bottom line is that every job offers both opportunities and opportunity costs. Attorneys should consider the realities of each future position, whether that job be with a firm or with a company. Understanding the benefits and potential disadvantages each opportunity offers will help you make better decisions as you progress in your legal career. Natalie Thorsen