If I have heard it once, I have heard it 1,000 (and probably more) times as a recruiter: “I am not interested in another firm, but I am interested in in-house opportunities.” When I ask why a lawyer is limiting her career plans to in-house, the responsibilities include: law firms are all the same, I want more predictability in my schedule, I don’t want to bill my time anymore, or I want to be part of the business.” Other than the first (law firms are not fungible), these are valid reasons; the risks of going in-house are ending your training, losing your legal skills, thus, exposing yourself to a different type of insecurity.
After six years of burning the post-midnight oil as a midtown associate, I took a job as a 9-6 staff attorney at an advertising agency. The work was varied and interesting, I never worked a weekend and the only reason I ever stayed in the building past 6 was to attend a concert or party at the Company bar. I would probably still be working there had there not been a hostile takeover and lay off of 80% of the legal department.
I was fortunate to land a position as General Counsel of a newly NYSE listed motion picture production and distribution company. On my first day on the job, the CEO and majority shareholder welcomed me and told me to make legal a “profit center.” I nodded, left his office, and asked the first person I found what a “profit center” was. The company president told me I had to reduce the legal budget. When I suggested using an excellent regional firm I knew well instead of our first-rate Manhattan outside counsel, he told me that was impossible because of the close relationship between the CEO and that firm’s relationship partner. How I managed those goals is the subject of another blog.
The job consisted of exciting 12-hour days managing the day-to-day legal function, regular travel to Hollywood and London and, ultimately, a Chapter 11 filing (which was tremendous learning experience for what it’s worth). I had developed management skills and learned a lot about how clients use and view their lawyers; I decided that my in-house experience had best suited to me to private practice where I could apply my new skills and grow my legal skill set before it atrophied completely. [How I became a recruiter ten years later is also the subject of another blog or maybe a screenplay.]
I have fond and grateful memories of my days in-house. What I especially liked about it was that my clients were my colleagues. Many became clients in my private practice and remain friends. If you are not happy in private practice, the right in-house job can be a perfect antidote. You may have to make trade-offs in compensation and upward mobility. And the pressure of having one client and one boss can be excruciating. My advice is to consider all your options, both firm and in-house. And bear in mind the old adage: watch out what you wish for, because you may get it.