Going in-house

In house image

Going in-house is one of the most common routes out of the BigLaw world. We spoke to four recruiters at E.P. Dine who specialize in in-house search to find out more about this path and the realities of life as an in-house associate…

What are some common reasons why lawyers want to leave firm life behind to go in-house?

E.P. Dine: The most common motivations are an interest in being closer to the business side; the desire for a more manageable lifestyle with greater predictability; and the limited opportunities for partnership at law firms.

At a firm, you represent many different clients and may not have the opportunity to support the same client continuously or even more than once. An in-house lawyer focuses on the ongoing needs of a single client. No more hopping from deal to deal and from client to client. In-house you become part of a team working to facilitate positive outcomes and regulating risk for one client. You have the opportunity (and are expected) to take a “deep dive” into learning the business to provide the best advice for your client.

“No more hopping from deal to deal and from client to client.”

Associates often move in-house with the hopes of achieving greater work/life balance.  In-house attorneys definitely work hard, but they tend to have greater visibility about upcoming deadlines and project timelines than at the law firm. This visibility allows the lawyer to better manage the work flow and his or her time. You typically have the support of outside counsel for large transactions and other labor-intensive or time-sensitive matters.

Law firm lawyers have a single career track – they can be promoted from associate to Counsel to Partner (or stay in a permanent off-track role in some instances) – and there are limited opportunities for partnership. In-house lawyers may enjoy the benefits of a multi-dimensional career track with varied promotion opportunities.

“I realized that I did not want to be on call 24/7 for the rest of my life.”

Emma Barnett, an attorney placed by E.P. Dine at MSG, had this to say: “I loved my time at the law firm. I enjoyed the complexity of the transactions I worked on, and every day I felt like I was growing, learning and becoming a better lawyer. However, there was a continued expectation of availability no matter how senior I became. I realized that I did not want to be on call 24/7 for the rest of my life.

In-house life has a smaller more intimate feeling too. You truly are committed to your clients and your team because you are going to be working with them indefinitely – this is not a one-off transaction where you won’t see or hear from these people again. You really invest in each other, your company, your clients, your colleagues, etc., and they really invest in you.


How do hours and compensation vary between firms and in-house roles?

E.P. Dine: A big misconception among associates is that all in-house roles afford a drastically different lifestyle from that at a law firm. It’s not that simple. There are some positions where a 9am to 5:30pm with no weekend work may be the norm, and others where it is not unusual to be working until 8pm every night. Most in-house attorneys find they are not in the office around the clock or working weekends, but that their days are jam-packed, and the pace can often be more intense.

“A big misconception among associates is that all in-house roles afford a drastically different lifestyle from that at a law firm.”

With respect to compensation, typically in-house attorneys earn less than lawyers who are working at a large firm. Because law firms are partnerships, they offer associates a cash-only compensation system which is split between a base amount as well as a bonus. Total in-house compensation can become quite competitive with law firms through the company’s bonus system. In-house bonuses can be all cash, or a combination of cash and equity. Companies also provide benefits that enrich the total package, such as a matching 401k, or more comprehensive health care plans. Generally though, the base salary in-house does not increase from year to year at the same rate as a law firm’s.

Here's Emma’s experience: “My compensation in-house ties directly to company performance as well as my individual performance. At a law firm, it didn’t matter if I billed more hours than someone else my year, or completed some really complex and challenging transaction. My whole class received the same pay increase. Further, the in-house equity compensation program makes me feel a deeper level of investment in the company.”


What positives does firm life offer that an in-house position may not?

E.P. Dine: As a lawyer at a law firm you are a revenue generator, whereas you are part of a “cost center” at a company. At a law firm this often means more resources and support staff, continuous opportunities for training and development, and potentially more stability.  You may also have more visibility as to your career path (associate, counsel, partner).

Law firms provide the opportunity to work with, and learn from, experienced legal experts. There is always someone down the hall who can help you work through the legal complexities of a difficult issue you are facing.  This may not be the case in-house.  In-house you may be the only lawyer, or one of very few, and calling outside counsel for help will result in a cost to the company.

Although law firm lawyers work notoriously unpredictable and long hours, they typically have more flexibility during the day than lawyers at companies. In-house culture sometimes requires more face-time. At a company, you are generally expected to be readily accessible to your clients during business hours. You’ll have fewer attorneys available to cover work in your absence too.


What are in-house employers looking for? What type of person is best suited to working in-house?

E.P. Dine: Employers are typically looking for candidates with strong law firm training. There is very little “formal” training once you move in-house, so employers want to hire candidates who have strong time and project management skills, who are clear and effective communicators, are skilled at drafting and negotiating and have dealt directly with clients. They are looking for attorneys with excellent judgment, maturity and the ability to have a commercial mindset.  Industry and relevant subject matter experience are also desired.

“Once you move in-house, clients are coming to you directly for a decision based on the information available, often without the benefit of time to research a topic.”

In order to be an effective in-house lawyer, an attorney must be resourceful, team-oriented, confident and pragmatic. The person best-suited to working in-house is comfortable with uncertainty and making decisions. There is a certain comfort in the checks and balances that come with the hierarchical nature of law firm structure. Once you move in-house, clients are coming to you directly for a decision based on the information available, often without the benefit of time to research a topic. You have to develop strong relationships with businesspeople and gain their trust by not falling into the trap of being the “no” person. Rather you must be the person who balances risks with business demands and tries to find a way to get the deal done. An ivory tower approach will not fly in-house.

According to Emma, “[A] team player that can jump in, ready to add value in any way possible, is a great person for in-house life. As you build relationships in-house and gain a reputation for being helpful and hardworking, people start coming to you for guidance and assistance on really interesting things, both legally and strategically. You become an asset and people will value and respect your opinion. You don’t simply have respect because you are a law firm associate from a well-recognized firm.”

If an associate thrives on deal work (is a “deal junkie”), there are not as many in-house opportunities that can offer the deal flow that a law firm can. On the litigation side, if you prefer legal strategy and managing cases (rather than putting the papers together and arguing in court) you will probably prefer working in-house.


In your experience, what stops people from lateralling in-house?

E.P. Dine: Compensation, inertia, fear of the unknown, timing. Associates are often wary of moving in-house “too soon”, or if they are more senior, want to wait out partnership decisions prior to considering an in-house move.  Some associates are hesitant to work autonomously and under minimal supervision, especially if they feel they haven’t accumulated the necessary experience yet.


When is the best time in a lawyer’s career to make the move in-house?

E.P. Dine: There is no single “best time.” However, it is helpful to have at least 3- 5 years of law firm experience. As associates approach their 5th year, they usually have solid drafting and negotiation skills that will be an added value to an in-house role.

“The trick is to make sure you have obtained enough substantive legal training at the law firm to be effective as an in-house lawyer.”

Emma says that“making the move as a junior to mid-level associate allows you more time to adjust, grow and develop into the role. Additionally, in-house roles tend to have lots of opportunity for ownership and taking on something new.”  She also adds that for a junior person who is not ready to move in-house, “it might be a worthwhile option to consider moving to a smaller firm as an interim step.

The trick is to make sure you have obtained enough substantive legal training at the law firm to be effective as an in-house lawyer.  If you wait too long to move in-house, it is hard for a company to match your salary. An associate therefore needs to evaluate his or her own comfort level with such a move, understanding that people come to this point at different stages in their careers.


What are the biggest risks for associates making the move? 

E.P. Dine: Lawyers should do their due diligence before moving in-house!  Learn as much as you can about the company. Is it likely to be sold, merged, relocated or restructured? We had one senior candidate learn about a major restructuring immediately after joining the company. The restructuring had been planned before he joined, but not shared with him!

It is also very important to assess how the legal department is perceived by the business. For example, is the legal department viewed as a true member of the team and a value-added asset? Or does the business view the legal department as a place they have to go “to just check the box” at the end of the process?  


With these risks in mind, why is it worth making the move?

E.P. Dine: Bottom line – it is worth the risk because the risk is actually rather small.

Lawyers who are not content with one in-house position can generally move easily to a more suitable position. Being an in-house lawyer is incredibly rewarding.  You can use your legal knowledge to help further the company because you are a member of the team and have a seat at the table. In our experience, the majority of attorneys who move in-house never look back!


Any final words of wisdom for readers who might be contemplating moving in-house?

E.P. Dine: Be proactive about your career!  Sometimes you are so busy, it is hard to find the time take a step back and think about the bigger picture. Ask yourself what you like and dislike about your current practice. Think about where you might want to be in five years. What type of career might be sustainable given your personal situation and goals outside of the office? You should ask yourself if you want to become your clients’ go-to lawyer for your specific expertise. Or would you prefer to be inside the company, furthering it with that expertise?  If you opt to go in-house do your diligence and try not to fear the unknown but ultimately, you should follow your gut. Both are excellent paths.

“As you explore in-house positions, keep in mind that it can take longer to move in-house than when lateraling from one law firm to another.”

Emma advises you to “talk to people you know that made the move; gain insight from their learnings. If you’re lucky enough to have a placement firm like EP Dine helping you, draw on their expertise.

And as you explore in-house positions, keep in mind that it can take longer to move in-house than when lateraling from one law firm to another. Ideally you should start exploring opportunities while you are still relatively happy/comfortable. Start interviewing early so that you get exposure to the market and can hone your interview skills.  If you are on the fence – take the interview; you don’t need to take the job!

Finally, don’t take rejection to heart. Some of the most amazing candidates we know were runners-up for several positions before finding their in-house job. The competition for in-house roles is fierce and there are so many intangible and subjective factors that influence an employer’s hiring decision. Keep at it.


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