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The recent spate of heavy-hitting industry lawyers returning to private practice has surprised many within the profession. The high-tech boom has witnessed an explosion of lawyers who, attracted by equity stakes and lifestyle gains, left law firms behind for industry jobs. Most recruitment experts expected this trend to continue unabated. However, as law firm salaries rocket and the potential for winning a host of new “e-conomy” clients grows, in-house lawyers are finding the lure of private practice irresistible once more. Eyebrows were first raised in April of this year when Stephen Ball, Nomura’s chief general counsel, joined the London practice of Los Angeles firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher after 10 years in-house. More recently, U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) competition lawyer Willard Tom was snapped up by Morgan Lewis and Bockius, while Norton Rose announced the hire of Tele Danmark’s assistant general counsel, Mark Naftal. Naftal decided to move back into private practice because he thought having a wider client base would give him a more secure existence than he could get in the merger-mad telecoms sector. He found there was a huge demand for in-house lawyers. “I tested myself on the open market and found that firms were extremely interested in hiring someone with my technical expertise industry knowledge and regulatory contacts.” Says Naftal, “I think you are going to see a lot of movement because of the turmoil in the high-tech industry. The bloom is definitely off the dot-com rose.” However, the classic reasons for moving away from private practice in the first place are lifestyle-related, and for many this still holds true. Elizabeth Williams, industry specialist at ZMB, the U.K.-based legal recruitment consulting firm, claims the majority of her candidates continue to cite personal issues as the main reason for wanting to move in-house. “People realize that life does not get any better when you become an equity partner and do not wish to lose the next four years of their life to the firm. They realize they are kissing goodbye to the mega-bucks they might earn if they stay, yet most candidates have stopped worrying about money by this stage,” she says. LIFESTYLE BENEFITS Nonetheless, one IT partner at a top London firm who spent four years in-house before returning to private practice claims the so-called “lifestyle benefits” associated with industry positions have become a myth. “Modern, in-house culture has changed over the last 10 years. Those that moved in the ’80s certainly found life gentler than it is now. I certainly didn’t find the hours to be any less at all, and I know many more lawyers who will tell you a similar story,” he says. Moreover, as industry fails to keep pace with the unprecedented amounts of money to be earned in private practice, so, too, are more flexible working hours creeping into some city firms. The reasons for leaving private practice may no longer be so readily apparent. The good news for in-house lawyers is that their skills and experience are highly coveted by recruiting law firms. Industry and regulatory knowledge has become an invaluable commodity as law firms fail to keep pace with fast-moving, technology-based sectors like telecoms and IT. Andrew MacLean, head of consumer finance, recently hired as the head of legal at U.K. company Direct Line for precisely that reason. He says, “Industry knowledge is a major reason for recruiting outside private practice. I realized that to get someone with cutting-edge, consumer finance experience I had to look in-house.” It is too early to say whether law firms will continue to reverse the wholesale industry losses suffered during the late nineties. Private practitioners must tread carefully, as good in-house contacts can provide an abundance of work for the firm. The response of industry to the rising salary differential between in-house and private practice could prove crucial. William Cock of London-based legal recruiting consultants QD Legal says that, although he is placing lawyers at all levels back into private practice, we should be wary of predicting a mass exodus. “The reasons for going from private practice to in-house still hold good. They are lifestyle, reasonable money, and the chance for younger lawyers to get experience. The majority of lawyers are still moving into industry and not vice-versa,” he says. For many industry lawyers, however, the financial realities of private practice may prove too good to miss.

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