Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of J. Mark McKinzie’s name.
By J. Mark McKinzie
Let’s examine the differences between working in-house and as an associate/partner in a law firm.
Back when I graduated from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in December of 1978, those of us who were beginning our careers believed their job options were limited to working for law firms or government agencies. Over the years, however, there was a third option: working as an in-house legal professional for a private company, a position which has grown in stature and importance to the businesses they serve. This column is dedicated to reviewing the pluses and minuses that come from working in-house and, as they say, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” It is my belief, having worked on both sides — spending a number of years as general counsel for a medium-sized insurance company as well as two stints in private practice — that it truly is only a different shade of green.
In-house legal teams can vary in size, scope and responsibility. From a single attorney to large in-house legal teams, here are some of the main differences to consider if you’re thinking about going in-house. First of all, the most popular level of experience for in-house hires is between three to six years in private practice. The reason for this is that in-house teams are simply not set up to train new lawyers when compared to private practice. Often when an attorney is switching from private practice to coming in-house, it is a win-win experience for the firm, as the attorney going in house understands and knows the legal needs of the business he or she will be serving and is well thought of as a problem solver with a high level of legal acumen particularly important to the business. For matters needing outside counsel assistance, the attorney going in-house is likely to contact his or her old colleagues for assistance, and the firm’s ties to a client are actually strengthened for the long-term.
Some of the advantages of going in-house include:
1. Getting more respect from coworkers due to the tendency to operate more like a team. In a law firm environment, in addition to billing a sufficient number of hours, you must also produce a work product that competes with and is superior to that of your peers if you want to be given top assignments. By working toward a common goal as an in-house attorney, the success of your singular client has an advantage of greater satisfaction for all who contributed to it.
2. Although compensation may not be as high, there is usually greater job security and other perks, including stock options with publicly traded companies.
3. Absent a corporate crisis, you are more in control of your work hours and not subject to the whim of a client calling you at 5 p.m. on Friday and needing something by Monday morning.
However, in-house attorney jobs are not without risks:
1. The decision to become an in-house attorney may make it harder for you to find work in a law firm again.
2. While you do not have the obligation to track billable hours, you are likely to be paid less than your law firm counterparts.
3. You may also find that bonuses based on hours worked are simply unavailable to in-house attorneys.
4. If your company wildly succeeds and is purchased, the buyer may not have the same perceived need for your services. (However, if your company fails, all employees may lose their jobs.)
In essence, in-house attorneys can find their jobs very rewarding if adequately matched with their expectations and talents because the job requirements are so different.
In assessing and evaluating whether going in-house is a preferable career route, examining an attorney’s personal characteristics can help. Important attributes for in-house attorneys are problem-solving, being a team player, responsiveness, and having a proactive nature to take action to make necessary changes within the company. While compensation is essential, 60-plus-hour work weeks and endless paperwork that accompanies billing in six-minute increments can be draining. Working in a team environment versus “eating what you kill” is attractive to many accomplished people. While a mid-sized firm (20-60 attorneys) can offer a good combination of solid training in a variety of legal specialties, along with a good salary and early hands-on experience, bottom line, no matter what the size, working at a law firm means your needs often have to take a back seat to the client’s needs: keeping them happy as long as what they request is moral, ethical and legal. Firms of all sizes stay financially successful primarily based on how much they can bill their clients. Charging by tenths of an hour, every minute that attorneys aren’t billing is “lost” time that otherwise could be used to generate revenue. Because clients are critical to a firm’s livelihood, associates must look to eventually be responsible for bringing in new business or rainmaking. While the potential to earn big bucks may lure many young lawyers to the big-firm life, the cost of giving up control over your personal life may be significant. “If the client needs you there on Saturday and Sunday, you’ll be there!”
In summary, the in-house difference is that in exchange for no pressure to be a rainmaker or recruit new clients, not worrying about billable hours, and having greater job stability as part of an in-house legal team, there is usually a meaningful salary trade-off for the comparatively cushier lifestyle that many in-house attorneys enjoy.
Whatever your choice, know that there is no substitute for hard work and the consistent demonstration of good judgment in whatever legal issues you are involved in to solve. In the long run, you are better off pursuing what inspires you, which will act as the fuel to ignite your efforts to know you’ve made a difference:
• to your company,
• to your profession,
• to your family,
• to your goals, and
• to your personal balance in life.
It truly is only a different shade of green!•
• J. Mark McKinzie is a partner at Riley Bennett Egloff LLP. Opinions expressed are those of the author.