As a legal recruiter, one of the most common things I hear from law firm associates is that their goal is to go in-house. Law firm associates often can’t wait to leave behind the billable hour.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with that — in-house roles can be a good fit for many lawyers. But the way law firm associates idolize in-house counsel positions often indicates an incomplete understanding of the realities of these jobs.
Having spent the majority of my legal career working in-house, I am deeply familiar with the tradeoffs associated with working in-house and can tell you it is not what you’ve been led to believe.
A lengthy interview process
If you land an interview, buckle up because it’s a long road.
You’re likely to get your first taste of the differences between law firms and companies during the in-house interview process.
Law firm interviewing tends to prioritize efficiency: you interview with some partners, meet a few associates, go to lunch, and get an offer. The whole process takes about a month and sometimes much less.
For in-house roles, you typically apply online, send your resume into the ATS abyss, and hope for the best. If you are one of the lucky ones, you will advance to a recruiter phone screening. Once that is complete, expect to wait at least a week to meet with the hiring manager. After interviewing with the hiring manager, you will be scheduled to meet members of the legal team. If all goes well, you’ll be introduced to the functional leaders you would support. Finally, you may meet with the Chief Legal Officer. The time between rounds is usually about a week. In the interim, you may be expected to complete a take-home assignment or a case study, which you then may or may not present to your potential future colleagues. Overall, expect this process to take four to eight weeks or longer.
From profit center to cost center
As a lawyer at a law firm, you are part of the profit center: you bill hours and directly generate revenue. You are paying for staff salaries and keeping the lights on. In contrast, an in-house legal department is a cost center, supporting the revenue-generating parts of the business, but not bringing in revenue independently.
When you go in-house, all eyes are no longer on you, and you are somewhat less important. This shift affects every aspect of your job, including resource allocation, leadership focus, and budget.
No longer the profit center and no longer keeping time, in-house counsel must find ways to add value to the business and develop creative ways to measure those contributions. Adding value and measuring it is doubly important in times of economic uncertainty, when companies move to cut costs.
A change of pace — but not necessarily slower
Whoever told you that in-house counsel enjoy a well-balanced 9-to-5 was wrong. Let’s be clear: the typical in-house role is far from the relaxed 40-hours-a-week you’ve been pitched. In reality, 60-hour weeks are not uncommon for many in-house lawyers.
First, the decision to hire in-house counsel is made for a reason: there is a lot of work to be done. You are expected to take on the work of outside counsel independently, and to do so with fewer resources.
Remember that hearing you went to 30 minutes away or the time you spent sitting in court waiting to argue? As an associate, this counted as productivity. As in-house counsel, when you spend time on activities where your presence turns out not to have been necessary, you’re the one who bears the cost. You still have to get your work done, and frequently that means putting in time in the evenings or on weekends to catch up.
Finally, businesses move at an incredible pace. You’re likely to find that timelines are extremely short. Gone are the days when you had two weeks to complete a memo. Now you need to do it in 30 minutes. Your internal clients need quick answers, and if you don’t weigh in immediately, the business will take action without you.
Juggling many responsibilities
Private practice is all about specialization. But at most companies, especially smaller ones, every in-house counsel has a much more diverse range of responsibilities on their plate. That can be exciting, but it’s also time-consuming and stressful, especially when you are given responsibility for an area unrelated to your prior law firm practice.
Startups take this to the extreme. Not only will you be one of the few lawyers in the company (perhaps even the only one!), but you will also probably be one of the smartest people in the room. People will recognize that, and they’ll want to tap you for projects that aren’t squarely within the legal domain. Being involved in non-legal subject matter might sound fun, but it can be exhausting when combined with the legal work that forms the core of your portfolio.
Be realistic about the tradeoffs
There’s no denying that law firms can be a tough environment, and a long-term career in private practice isn’t for everyone. But it’s easy to take for granted the benefit of being surrounded by smart and well-credentialed colleagues. Not to mention resources like immediately responsive paralegals and subscriptions to any database you desire. Or a well-defined career progression with material increases in compensation every year. As an in-house counsel, you can’t expect a luxury building in a prime location, a private office, an assistant, a paralegal, or even Westlaw.
You may be more than happy to make those tradeoffs. But do think it through carefully. The grass isn’t always greener.