A move in-house can certainly seem appealing to a seasoned Private Practice lawyer – no more pressure about billable hours, no need to bring in new clients or be a rainmaker. Sounds like a dream! But what should you really be taking into account before leaving your Law Firm behind for the green, green grass of the corporate lifestyle?
Work/Life Balance: Fact or Myth?
A common perception is that as in-house lawyers only have to meet the demands of a single client, this gives them the luxury of working a ‘9 to 5’ role. The truth in this perception depends on the individual company you will be working for, their corporate culture, and also a lot on your actual role – there are companies that want to get as much ‘bang for their buck’ as possible by working their legal teams harder than a Private Practice firm, and conversely there are also companies that have a strong emphasis on employee satisfaction and having a fulfilling lifestyle outside of the office!
You should also be aware that even in a flexible and relaxed company, if there are any large and critical issues then you will still be expected to put in as many hours as necessary to get the job done. All-nighters may not be completely off the cards for you but they will not be as prevalent as in a private practice setting. This would be mainly due to the fact that if you are working on a time sensitive and rather large transaction, there would likely still be the private practice law firms running the transaction, turning documents around overnight for you (the client) to review in the morning.
Pay Cut/Pay Rise?
There is usually a trade-off for better hours that comes in the form of salary. In addition, you are no longer a fee-earner but an overhead – even junior lawyers may have to take a hit on compensation and this increases exponentially for those at the senior associate, Counsel or Partner level. There is a caveat to this however – what you may lose in your monthly packet may be made up for with other benefits such as stock options and bonuses, and of course the personal time you get back to spend with your family or on your passions is not something you can put a price on.
Beyond starting salary, you must also consider career progression. Many law firms still follow traditional lockstep salaries that increase with seniority alongside a very structured career track up to equity Partnership, but in-house career progression does not follow the same trajectory and tends to plateau earlier. Consider a General Counsel – that is a position that is unlikely to ever offer any further progression, and whilst you may get small incremental pay rises typical of any white-collar job, you are unlikely to be seeing any huge jumps in your responsibilities or your pay packet. Even more junior lawyers in large multi-divisional legal departments may even find it hard to move ‘up the ranks’ as opportunities can be limited to when a more senior team member leaves or retires unless there is a significant increase in workload and consequent growth of the team.
The Office Environment
A law firm environment revolves entirely around its lawyers – lawyers are their life blood and their most valuable assets, every working moment is a ‘billable hour’ and their lawyers time is precious and extremely valuable. We have heard of stories where associates’ laundry and lunch and even dinner is fetched for them by a secretary or other so that they do not have to leave their desk.
As an in-house lawyer, you must appreciate that you are a cog in a greater machine, and indeed an expense to the company. Whilst you should still receive a certain amount of respect (as most professionals are valued), you are no longer the most important person around. If you like to have your ego stroked on a regular basis then perhaps in-house isn’t the place to be.
Furthermore, the resources available to you will certainly not be as abundant, and you may find that you no longer have access to libraries of information and swathes of legal secretaries and support staff like you once did. Chances are, you’ll have to do your own photocopying and scanning so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
If you are used to the prestige of your international law firm with its swanky marble lobby and incredible corporate biglaw perks like pro-sushi chef visits, steak at your desk or an office swimming pool and the unlimited budget that goes with being part of the core business then a move to a typical in-house company could be a shock to the system (although this is not to say that many companies don’t also offer great perks – for example Google’s California headquarters has a gym, a bowling alley, a game room, and basketball courts, a barber shop, a massage parlor, and a laundromat). It is unlikely that you will have the best office in the building unless you are incredibly lucky, and indeed you may even find yourself – dare I say it – in a cubicle or open plan office.
You are also inevitably going to find yourself working alongside a much more diverse set of people (accountants, project managers, HR staff etc) who hold entirely different skill sets, abilities and attitudes than what you are accustomed to. This may come as shock to someone who has spent their entire career being surrounded by like-minded legal professionals, and before you make the move you need to question whether you can adjust, be accepting and be happy to collaborate. If you are the sole legal counsel, it could well be a very lonely existence.
Risk Management and Responsibility
One of the biggest differences you will find in-house is that a huge part of your role could do with risk management. Private Practice lawyers are used to firing away advice on the law – with caveats and disclaimers – in a very risk averse manner, but it falls on in-House Counsel to carefully judge the advise based on different scenarios and to decide how that advice is to be implemented keeping in the mind the larger interests of the Company and business. This appetite for Risk not only varies from company to company, with some being risk averse and some being extremely aggressive, but it can sometimes also vary between different regions and jurisdictions within the same company. Before you join a company, it would be important to consider where the company’s risk appetite stands and indeed see how much of the company’s inner risk taking abilities ties in with your personal ticker for risk! While it may not be possible to ascertain a company’s risk appetite in a couple of rounds of interview, asking the right questions can give you a fairly good idea.
Furthermore in Private Practice, you will likely have had Senior Partners to check over your work or to answer your questions when needed – and as a sole counsel this safety net would be pulled out from under you whilst you will also be taking on personal responsibility for deals and making potentially huge business decisions. Could you cope with this pressure and stress?
Ethical and Political Fit
With the most legally innovative (and potentially most exciting) companies often comes ruthlessness in terms of company ethos, and you may need to ask yourself how far you are willing to go for money. Following the landmark UK employment tribunal ruling stating that Uber can no longer classify drivers as self employed – meaning that they must pay drivers national living wage and holiday pay – the firm told 40,000 of their contractors to disregard the ruling. Are you willing to totally buy-in to this kind of strategy? Indeed some companies have reputations so bad that the name alone evokes an element of hatred – for example, would you be comfortable telling your friends that you headed up legal for Monsanto, a company that has gained such a bad name for itself that Bayer is considering changing it in the upcoming takeover?
Equally, consider whether you and your potential new company align politically. Would you be happy working within the Trump Organisation which has recently become a politically tangled web?
Clearly there are a lot of factors to think about before making an in-house move, and furthermore it is still important to take into consideration the overall reputation, culture, financial outlook, team, career progression etc. at the company as you would when considering a move to any law firm.
If you are a lawyer looking for career guidance or are a company looking for a new counsel or legal team then please do not hesitate to us.
We place a high value on our relationships and work with a comprehensive list of clients which include international law firms, multinationals and financial institutions operating in Singapore and within the Asian region. We give an objective, impartial and honest advice on your career and we pride ourselves on the tailored recruitment solutions we offer.