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When Corporate Counselasked in-house lawyers about their jobs last year, we found a pretty satisfied group. But according to the 2002 Quality of Life Survey, they’re even happier now. Sure, the economy stinks, layoffs abound, and the stock market swings wildly day-to-day, but in-house lawyers aren’t complaining. Survey respondents say that collegiality has improved, the work is more interesting, and their relationships with outside counsel are better than ever. In-house legal jobs, it seems, are snug ports in the storm. Half of the lawyers at Covington, Ky.-based Ashland Inc. who filled out the survey say the economic downturn has submerged their stock options. But their opinion of departmental collegiality has soared in the past year. At New York’s Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., salary satisfaction has plunged. Nonetheless, in-house lawyers there say their work is more interesting than in 2001. And at Lowe’s Companies Inc., respondents give high marks to the diverse nature of the work, departmental collegiality and colleagues’ competence. Contradictory? Not to Stephen Hellrung, general counsel of the Wilkesboro, N.C.-based Lowe’s. He says it’s the economy that makes in-house counsel jobs look so appealing: “You look around and see how difficult the economic environment is, and you say, ‘Wow, am I fortunate.’” [For more on Lowe's legal department, see " Service Call".] TAKING THE PULSE Lowe’s was one of 50 Fortune1000 companies whose lawyers (595 in all) filled out the anonymous questionnaire. Twelve of those 50 businesses responded to last year’s survey, too. Comparing survey averages for 2002 with 2001 shows that this year, corporate counsel are clinging to their jobs — and appreciating them more. The number of respondents looking for new positions has gone down markedly, to only 9 percent, and job satisfaction ratings are up. As James Wilber, a principal with legal consulting firm Altman Weil Inc., in Newtown Square, Pa., puts it: “Everyone is just hunkered down and thankful for what they’ve got.” The lousy economy has sparked some unexpected benefits, too. With less billable business (other than bankruptcies and litigation), outside counsel are scrambling to keep their in-house clients happy — even those below the GC level. And financial turmoil — as well as corporate scandal — has put many in-house lawyers at the center of some fascinating work. NOWHERE TO GO Life in-house isn’t perfect, though. Many respondents say in their survey comments that they’re working harder than ever at a time when they’ve already spent years paying their dues: On average, respondents have been out of law school for 16 years and at their companies for eight. All that hard work isn’t necessarily going to pay off either; only 39 percent gave their company high marks for advancement opportunities. It’s no wonder that these attorneys aren’t eager to switch jobs this year, what with daily reports of shrinking earnings and ballooning unemployment. In 2001, 15 percent of respondents were looking for new jobs; the number is down considerably this year. “Many [in-house lawyers] tell me: ‘The devil I know is better than the devil I don’t know,’” says Michael Coleman, president of Philadelphia-based Coleman Legal Search Consultants, a legal recruiting company. “This is a very scary time to make a move.” Talking with their law firm counterparts is apt to make them grateful too. “In-house lawyers have seen reductions in force at law firms, and a lot are very appreciative of what they’ve got,” says Robert Major, a partner at the San Francisco-based legal recruiter Major, Hagen & Africa. SCANDALS = BETTER JOBS There’s a sunny side to this year’s down market and nearly weekly revelations of business scandals: In-house lawyers say their jobs have become more interesting (88 percent of those surveyed rated their jobs’ interest level highly). Francesca Maher, GC of Elk Grove, Ill.-based UAL Corp., says her attorneys’ ratings for the interest level of their work (90 percent of them gave high marks) rose this year because the work changed dramatically post-9/11. Her lawyers are in the thick of “strategic and enterprise-critical work,” says Maher. Fred Krebs, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Corporate Counsel Association, notes that urgent corporate governance and compliance issues have enlivened jobs too. “It’s a challenging time economically, but it’s an exciting time, and that makes for high job satisfaction,” he says. And, he adds, “the environment is such that CEOs and senior management are seeking out and paying attention to advice from in-house attorneys more than ever before.” Other than the intellectual content of the work, a big part of job satisfaction depends on the quality of relationships with co-workers, clients and outside counsel. Although the increases weren’t huge, survey averages were consistently up in this area [see chart " (They Can Get Some) Satisfaction"]. Respondents say that their relationships with outside counsel, in particular, are better than ever — an unexpected benefit of the down economy. Those giving above-average marks in this area jumped from 57 percent in 2001 to 75 percent this year. “It’s a buyer’s market for legal services,” explains Altman Weil’s Wilber. “Outside lawyers are more solicitous of corporate counsel.” This newfound devotion takes the form of more bulletins from firms on new laws and regulations, more visits to the client, and more ego-boosting phone calls from senior partners to those below the GC rank. “It’s very clear that firms are more solicitous,” says David Hausrath, general counsel at Ashland. For one thing, he says, “it’s easier to negotiate special deals with firms because they want the business.” DEAL WITH IT But dark economic times have hurt in-house lawyers too. Nearly 60 percent of those who have stock options say they’re underwater. Staying in the same job also means a paycheck that doesn’t get noticeably bigger either. This year only 12 percent of survey participants say they are highly satisfied with their compensation. Respondents also say they are less satisfied with overall opportunities for advancement at their companies too. Even in good times, corporate law departments tend to have what executive recruiter Major calls “a bottleneck at the top.” With less movement there are even fewer spots for promotions. This year only about 40 percent of our respondents rated advancement opportunities as above average. Despite these complaints, most in-house lawyers say their work lives are good. “People who know they’re going to be somewhere for a while tamp down their dissatisfactions,” says Rees Morrison, a principal with legal consulting firm Hildebrandt International. The true test, however, is whether survey respondents would recommend their company to a friend. Despite the quibbles and anecdotal tales of overwork, a resounding 88 percent of them say yes.
(They Can Get Some) Satisfaction Everything seems a little brighter this year for in-house lawyers. Colleagues are more collegial; the work is more interesting. And the pleasure of working with outside counsel increased from last year.
Percentage of Lawyers Who Give Above-Average Ratings* 2001 2002
Satisfaction in Working with Outside Counsel 57 75
Collegiality 70 77
Colleagues’ Competence 85 91
Interesting Work 83 88
*Above-average ratings are scores of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5.
( Corporate Counsel, December 2002)

Related charts: 2002 Quality of Life Survey Survey Overview

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