Lawyers call us on a daily basis asking us to find them the 'perfect' in-house opportunity. As we explore further, it seems that many of the lawyers who are looking to go in-house want to do so because they assume that an in-house position means more interesting work, shorter hours, and lucrative stock-options. Although these are all admirable goals, we believe that it is impossible to generalize that all in-house positions offer the utopian work environment we've described. In fact, as the dot-com mortality rate increases, law firm life is suddenly becoming more attractive to some. More and more, in-house attorneys call us wanting desperately to return to, or enter, private practice. Since this trend is at odds with the constant requests for in-house opportunities, we have decided to dispel the myths about private practice. In the end, it is not accurate, nor productive, to assume that law firms are somehow the lesser of employment options for associates in the legal market. Below, we have outlined a few of the considerations for lawyers considering leaving their private law firm.
Economic Security: With the dot-com craze, it seems as though many lawyers want to get into a company for the stock-options, in the hopes of a windfall at the IPO stage. However, that dream has recently come crashing down for many lawyers who left their law firms in an attempt to make it big. The Cinderella stories of massive economic gain have all but dried up, and lawyers are returning to private practice in droves.
The point? While some people reason that lawyers in private practice have a 'ceiling' in terms of compensation, the average salary for a lawyer in private practice still far exceeds the salaries of most Americans. At some of the biggest firms, associate and partner level paychecks can be staggering. More importantly, many large law firms have been around for decades, sometimes over a century. For the most part, these firms aren't going anywhere, even in a bad economy. This economic stability is unmatched in other industries. Although law firms occasionally 'go under', law firms are, in general, much more stable than companies in any other industry. This is especially true of the full service firm. When the economy is good, the real estate and corporate lawyers are busy. When it turns sour, the bankruptcy and litigation lawyers can pick up the slack in terms of billing and profitability. Most law firms diversify their client base to such an extent that the failure of any one or two clients will not compromise the bottom line. Law firms are built for survival in even the toughest economy.
Billable Hours: We often encounter lawyers whose primary goal in a career change is to reduce the pressure of billable hour requirements that seem to be only associated with private practice. Depending on your career and life goals, it is often perfectly reasonable to seek situations that will require something less than the typical billable hour requirements of an associate at a busy law firm. However, we do not agree that private practice necessarily means an unreasonable grind, nor should one expect a laid back lifestyle at an in-house position. General counsel and associate general counsel of large corporations often work the same type of hours as lawyers in private practice, which sometimes includes late night and weekend work. Many in-house departments of corporations are set up like law firms, where different departments within the company are considered 'clients,' and in-house counsel are required to bill and record how they spend their time with the internal clientele. For the companies that do not require their lawyers to bill their time, a lawyer working long hours has no record for the purpose of year-end productivity bonuses, as law firms do.
On the other hand, law firms are increasingly amenable to flextime, reduced hours, or telecommuting situations for valued lawyers. In the end, it is impossible to generalize what the time and billable hour requirements are for either law firms or corporations, and simply incorrect to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. At the end of the day, the fact of the matter is that most lawyers with sophisticated practices work hard, whether in private practice or in-house. There are as many distinctions to be made between lawyers practicing with a law firm as there are differences in the day-to-day life of prosecutors, general counsel and large firm associates.
Training and Development: Frequently, a lawyer only two or three years out of law school wants to go in-house. In the law firm setting, however, that lawyer's training has only just begun. Private law firms offer, either formally or otherwise, the type of training that will insure that an attorney's skills develop at the appropriate pace. However, in certain in-house situations, the lawyer may be the sole attorney in charge, or have very little mentoring. This means that the lawyer must rely heavily on himself or herself for guidance.
In addition, at an in-house position you may very well be managing outside counsel as opposed to doing the work yourself. For in-house litigation attorneys, there will likely be a decrease in, if not a complete lack of, actual trial experience. This lack of hands-on practice may not be the best option for those attorneys eager for courtroom experience, first hand negotiation, or putting together complicated deals. The upside of the in-house career is the business experience; however, too much business and not enough practicing may make returning to private practice difficult, if not impossible, down the road.
We encourage any lawyer considering a career change to avoid generalizations and preconceived notions of what it means to be practicing with a law firm, and, instead, to focus on what jobs are best suited to their particular credentials and abilities. We've heard the success stories for in-house positions-we believe they do happen. However, we also believe that law firms get an undeserved bad rap among lawyers-and we should know.