Let’s consider the following scenario: A young associate in her third year at an Am Law 200 firm receives an offer to take a job as an in-house lawyer. The associate isn’t in love with Big Law, has no deep desire to become an equity partner and harbors vague hopes of someday becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company.
Should she take the job? After all, wouldn’t it be wise to get on the in-house career track as soon as possible, especially if that’s what she may want to do in the future?
We’re loading the question here, of course. We think the associate in question should turn down the offer and keep plugging away at a law firm. As legal search professionals, it’s not uncommon for us to hear from junior associates — some as early as second-years — who are contemplating an exit from private practice. While a move in-house at this stage might be tempting, we think it could close as many career doors as it opens. Not only would such associates be depriving themselves of important skills and contacts gained as a senior associate, it may harm their ability to build a thriving in-house career as well.
We should be very clear: Taking an in-house position can often be a great move for a seasoned attorney. More than ever, legal departments are relying on technology and alternative service providers to perform routine work, and many in-house counsel are grappling with cutting-edge issues involving regulation, business strategy and globalization. As a result, in-house roles require more experience and business savvy than ever before. These aren’t (and never have been) fallback positions for junior associates experiencing ennui about their law firm careers.
In fact, we generally advise against an in-house position unless you’ve put in a minimum of five years or more as an associate. That’s not to say that you should suffer in silence if you hate your present circumstances, but we think there are other options available to help ease the pain.
First, though, let’s talk about the reasons it makes sense for a junior associate to stay on a Big Law path—at least for a few more years.
No Turning Back
Every so often, you’ll read about the retiring general counsel of a major company joining the ranks of an Am Law 200 firm. It makes sense: The GC can provide insight about the in-house world and presumably has made the kinds of contacts that will help drive business to the firm.
What you don’t read about are law firms hiring a host of junior associates from in-house positions. In most circumstances, it’s a one-way route from law firm to in-house. If you make the move to an in-house role, you had better be prepared for an entirely new career path, as it will be extraordinarily difficult for you to move back if you feel you’ve made a mistake.
Some of this is simply a matter of supply and demand. The market is full of well-qualified associates, most of whom will have a risk profile that’s appealing to hiring partners. Those partners may see little incentive in hiring an associate who has quit a big firm and now wants to exit their in-house job. While we have seen associates go back to firms after what were essentially one- or two-year secondments, those situations are rare. As recruiters, we aren’t confident we would be able to place a lawyer who simply moved from junior associate to in-house and wanted to jump back.
Experience matters, and it’s one of the key reasons associates should think carefully about moving in-house so early in their careers. Most law firms are committed to training their associates and employ serious resources to do so. Law, after all, is their primary business, and an associate’s services are part of what they sell. As an associate, you may dislike a firm, partner, or a type of matter, but more likely than not, you’re learning a great deal about the basics of handling a variety of legal issues.
As you advance to a senior associate role at most firms, you’ll probably have opportunities to work directly with clients and to take more of a leading role with them. In the meantime, you’ll also be making important contacts with clients, attorneys at your firm and with counsel on the other side of a deal or piece of litigation. All the while, you’ll be operating in an environment where lawyers and their work are highly valued.
For an in-house lawyer, such opportunities may be more limited. The law is almost certainly not the primary business of the enterprise, and, fairly or not, the legal department is often viewed as a cost center by company leaders. It’s less likely that a company is going to spend money training you, and for very junior lawyers, the work may prove even less exciting than some of the tasks you’ve had as an associate. Contract review, anyone?
That’s especially true at smaller companies and startups, where only one or two lawyers may serve the whole company. While you may have instant entrée into the C-suite in such a situation, and you’ll likely get to work closely with the CEO, resources for the department may be extremely limited — even for basic needs like research and outside counsel. At a larger company, you may have the ability to farm out questions to outside counsel, but costs will still be a challenge and routinely reaching out may highlight your status as an inexperienced lawyer.
Furthermore, you’ll need to be prepared for a radical change in your status. As we’ve noted, the law (and lawyers) are at the center of the firm universe. In companies, the business needs of the enterprise take precedence. You will need to be prepared to take those needs into account as you advise your business colleagues. Consistently delivering conservative advice as you would at a law firm will likely frustrate the business team — another factor that could end up stymieing your career path. In-house lawyers who are seen as blockades to business needs rarely rise to the top of corporate law departments.
Associates who’ve stayed at a law firm for five, or better yet, six or seven years, have received more training and should be adequately equipped to cope with a business environment. They are less likely to need to call upon other attorneys for advice or help — something easy to do in a law firm but can be more difficult in a small law department. And if they are interested in moving in-house, senior associates are far more likely to land superior roles that give them a better shot at one day leading a department.
For junior associates, however, the problem remains: what to do if you’re miserable at your current firm. Before making a career-shifting jump in-house, a move that you probably won’t be able to undo, we’d counsel you to take a position at another law firm.
We’ve found that associates, for a variety of reasons, are often reticent about making lateral moves. But we see lateraling as an opportunity for associates to continue to gain critical experience. It can also help them determine if their “buyer’s remorse” is about Big Law in general or about one law firm and its culture. A good recruiter will listen to what associates like or don’t like about their present firms and will offer counsel about firms that may provide a better fit.
From a career perspective, a lateral move keeps the associate’s options open. Hiring partners are more amenable to bringing aboard an associate from another law firm, and a new firm’s culture and/or business strategy could help solve the associate’s immediate problems. Later, when the time is right, the associate may make the jump to a legal department — now armed with a broader set of legal and client skills that should help them thrive in as an in-house lawyer.
Keith Fall is a partner and Taylor Miller is managing director of Walker Associates, a New York-based legal search firm.