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These days career satisfaction often means just being happy to have a job. As the recession lurches toward a third year, most Americans feel a now-familiar twinge of anxiety when they think about the security of their jobs, and in-house counsel are no different.
Nearly half the respondents to InsideCounsel’s 2010 Career Satisfaction Survey admitted they are at least somewhat worried about losing their jobs due to the economy.
That kind of apprehension and the effects of the gloomy economy are reflected in much of the data in the following pages, but the numbers tell only half the story. We also spoke to several respondents about their jobs and recent experiences. Their stories illustrate the breadth and variety of in-house work and life, and the fickle fortune of the recession.
It’s not all bad news. Some in-house counsel are happy and content in jobs that afford a safe harbor from the tempest. Others struggle to stay afloat. No one, however, is totally unaffected in an era when career satisfaction means a lot more than just a raise or promotion.
Up in the Air
Economists have spilled a lot of ink debating just when the recession technically began, but the shock waves started spreading from the sub-prime mortgage crisis in spring 2007. It didn’t take long for companies to invoke the troubled economy in layoffs.
“I lost my position in the law department at Union Pacific Railroad back in 2007,” says Henry Carnaby, who’s worked in-house for more than a decade. “At the time they said it was a contraction due to the recession.”
Carnaby may have been lucky he was an early casualty of the downturn, losing his job before the market really dried up. Although he says it was a difficult job search, he landed on his feet after three months. Networking through his affiliations, he found a legal position in the human resources department at Continental Airlines.
“Some people may view it as a step back, but I’m happy with the opportunity and very happy to continue working,” he says. “Sometimes when you lose a position, you have to reset your goals.”
He also had to find his way through a difficult transition period. He and his wife lived in Omaha with one child in high school and others in college. The new job was in Houston, so he faced the unfortunate combination of moving in a grim real estate market while footing multiple tuition payments. Luckily, working for an airline allowed him to commute for free back to Omaha on weekends until he could sort it all out, but it wasn’t exactly the glamorous jet-set lifestyle of yore.
“It actually turned out to be quite an ordeal,” he says. “Think about flying every weekend, and the crowds you have to face on holidays. My youngest graduated a year ago, so now I’ve got my wife and my dog down here with me in Houston, and we’re settled in a house. But commuting was tough. Putting off the move was tough, and I got killed in the housing market.”
Carnaby counts himself among the fortunate, but if anything, says the experience has sharpened his concern about the impact of the recession, especially on the hard-hit airline industry.
“You worry about keeping your job. You worry about whether the company’s doing well, you worry about whether you’re doing well on the tasks you have, and it’s just unsettling,” he says. “If I had to do it all over again, I wish I’d never had to make the move. But I’m really happy where I’ve landed.”
Work-life balance has always been one of the principal attractions of in-house work. In this year’s survey, nearly one-third of respondents listed it as the greatest advantage of the job–beating all other categories. But scratch deeper and you’ll find the recession has eroded this attribute for many lawyers who find themselves working longer hours with fewer resources at their disposal.
Gregory Thiess, vice president and assistant general counsel at the tool and appliance company Robert Bosch, says it was never easy to maintain a favorable work-life balance, but financial pressure has exacerbated the problem severely.
“A couple of years ago we had 11 or 12 lawyers, one paralegal and three or four administrative assistants,” he says. “Now we’re down to nine lawyers, one paralegal and two assistants–with a still-expanding volume of work. When those things collide, it generally produces extremely long hours and lots and lots of demands, usually on very short timeframes. It puts a real hole in your ability to have much balance in your life.”
For Thiess and other counsel whose departments have cut jobs and added work, the notion of a balanced life in-house is less a reality than a mirage, albeit an enduring one.
“I was recently at an alumni event for my law school and was chatting with some guys who are in private practice, and boy, they’re talking about in-house practice like it’s a walk in the park,” he says. “I told them not to assume that. I’ve never really found much difference in the hours and the work life-balance between in-house practice and private practice. It’s pretty much the same.”
For a lot of lawyers, that growing gap between perception and reality results in feeling overworked and under water. Almost 36 percent of survey respondents report that lawyers in their departments feel demoralized by economic pressure, and another 36 percent feel overworked.
“When you’re always behind, when there are always people waiting to get things they were expecting last week or last month, people can get down a little bit,” Thiess says. “You feel like you never quite get your nose above the water line. That can wear on people, especially when you’ve been doing it for years. And instead of getting better, it’s going the other way.”
After 15 years in-house, Roland Geddie lost his job when his company went out of business as a result of the recession. O’Sullivan Industries Inc., which manufactured ready-to-assemble furniture in rural southwestern Missouri, simply couldn’t endure a sustained drop in business.
“The retailers were having a tough time, and they take a lot out on their suppliers,” he says.
The company’s failure cast Geddie into a dismal job market far from major corporate bases.
“For a relatively senior position, it doesn’t seem to be very good,” Geddie says. “I’ve had some nibbles, but nothing has gone terribly far, unfortunately.”
After serving in-house for so long, he is more or less locked into looking for a corporate job, finding himself too senior to be an associate, with no business to bring to a partnership, and not a trial lawyer. So he’s set a very large search radius.
“It’s pretty much nationwide,” he says. “If it’s too cold, I probably won’t look there. I’ve pretty much skipped New York because I don’t think anyone will pay me enough to live there.”
For now, he’s biding his time, hoping an opportunity turns up, but he knows down the road he may have to consider a nonlegal job if nothing does.
“If the right opportunity came up I would have to consider it, but not at this point,” he says. “It would have to be a unique opportunity. Something with a reasonable compensation level.”
An oft-overlooked element of career satisfaction is mobility, the ability to move on or move up when you feel ready. But with law departments contracting and turnover low, some in-house counsel find themselves stuck.
There are a lot of reasons to want to find a new job. For Evan Slavitt, general counsel of the manufacturing company AVX Corp., it comes down to geography. The company, currently based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is planning to move its corporate headquarters to Greenville, a five-hour drive away. Slavitt has no interest in moving there, so that means finding another job. Given the small corporate base in Myrtle Beach, that will likely necessitate a move elsewhere.
“I’m clearly going to move, I just don’t want to go to Greenville,” Slavitt says. He knows that in this economy it won’t be easy to find a good job–for him that means “either the general counsel of an interesting company or the deputy general counsel for litigation of a really interesting company”–so he’s prepared to bide his time.
“I’m sort of looking in a light manner, but not drivingly,” he says. “If the right thing came along, I’d look at it.”
In the meantime, Slavitt endures the minor indignities the recession is placing on law departments, including a diminishing autonomy. He’s not alone. Almost 21 percent of survey respondents say they have less autonomy as a result of economic pressure.
“Now any expenditure over $10,000 has to be approved by our CEO,” he says. “Well that’s pretty much for almost anything. Subscribing to LexisNexis is more than $10,000.”
Frank Lynch’s previous job was a bear. In-house at a telephone company, he spent his days locked in tense discussions with salespeople he describes as “a bit on the slimy side.” So two years ago he made a move to Mondial Assistance, a French travel insurance company with U.S. headquarters in Richmond, Va. The job turned out to be a perfect fit.
“I get paid very well for what I’m asked to do,” he says. “The work-life balance is there, I like my colleagues, and the legal department has a good reputation in the company. Folks aren’t afraid to come in and ask questions and include us in business decisions and projects. I’m very happy that I was able to come here.”
Despite roots in two troubled industries–travel and insurance–the company seems to be weathering the recession.
“We’re an insurance company, so we were a little concerned when the economy went into a tailspin,” he says. “Fortunately, our numbers look good; it looks like we’re going to meet our budget revenue numbers.”
With two young daughters at home, family time is a top priority for Lynch. His job at Mondial allows him time to coach their soccer and basketball teams and serve as president of their elementary school PTA.
“I come into work at a reasonable hour and leave at a reasonable hour,” he says. “And I don’t have to take work home every weekend and work every night.”
With just four lawyers in the department–all relatively young–the one aspect of the company that might trip up some lawyers is a lack of opportunity for advancement. But with everything else going so well, Lynch is happy to stay right where he is.
“I probably won’t have advancement opportunities, and that’s fine by me,” he says. “With the personalities here and the type of work we all do, I would be perfectly happy to stay in this position for several years.”
More than Money
Christine Helwick has seen her compensation drop and her workload rise as a result of the economy, yet she still rates her career satisfaction at the top of the scale.
“I don’t view my job satisfaction to be only about compensation,” she says. “There’s job satisfaction on the merits that are separate from what you’re paid.”
As general counsel of California State University, Helwick manages a 23-lawyer department that handles the full range of legal issues for a major research university.
“It’s a very diverse practice,” she says. “If anything, it’s so diverse that we never get to be experts in anything, because we’re running a little universe. You’ve got personal injury and construction and employee issues and academic issues and regulations and environmental things and on and on, so it’s never dull. It feels like what we’re doing matters.”
As a result of the economy, all Helwick’s employees have been furloughed two days a month and taken a 10 percent pay cut. Still, she says, morale remains high.
“Anyone who’s chosen to come to a university practice or any government practice has already determined that monetary compensation isn’t the most important thing,” she says. “So perhaps it’s not surprising that when our compensation is affected it doesn’t have the same impact as other practices where that’s a higher value.”
Not everyone is feeling the full brunt of the recession. Some industries are better insulated than others, and law departments at some government entities are particularly secure.
“I don’t know if it’s recession-proof, but I would say that it’s much more stable,” says Cathy Linton, a senior supervising attorney in the 25-lawyer legal department of the South Florida Water Management District. “When I initially took the job, job stability wasn’t a big issue. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh no, what if I lose my job?’ But it certainly is an issue now, and it may be for years to come.”
Linton joined the department as a contract attorney in 1999 and took a full-time position in 2000. She likes the mission–managing water issues for a large population while trying to protect the Everglades–and the varied work she does: procurement for contract negotiations, administrative law, public records issues that arise under sunshine laws and the occasional intellectual property matter.
One of the most attractive aspects of her job, she says, is the work-life balance.
“I work about 40 hours a week, and it’s flexible,” she says. “It’s not really less than that, but it’s an extreme rarity for me to bring home work or have to work more than 40 hours, which is highly unusual in a lawyer’s job.”
Once or twice a year, a big administrative hearing might cause her to burn the midnight oil, but she doesn’t mind a bit. A little something to get the adrenaline going once in a while can be fun, she says, a change of pace.
“I feel much more comfortable here than I would at a law firm,” Linton says. “I think all law firms are hurting, and while the government agencies haven’t had raises in several years, they try in other ways to make up for that. They will increase our benefits or do whatever they can. And we haven’t had any layoffs.”