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As a law student, how are you supposed to make an informed decision about pursuing a legal career in a big law firm, a company, or the federal government? Most law schools won’t be able to give you all the answers to your questions about the differences in the quality of life, training, the prospects for promotion, compensation, the ability to control your practice and the attorney-client relationship. Here are some answers for law students who are wondering which direction to take as they plan their careers. My comments draw on what I have learned in nearly 13 years of practice at all three of these venues: a federal agency, two large law firms and three companies. 1. Are attorneys viewed differently by these three types of employers? Both law firm and in-house counsel provide the same service to their client: They help solve problems, protect the company from significant losses and liabilities and sometimes help the company exploit sources of revenue. But lawyers in a law firm drive the firm’s business model, and are therefore the employer’s profit center. In contrast, a law firm’s nonlegal staff is essentially a cost center that exists to help the lawyers perform their job effectively. The opposite is true for in-house lawyers, despite the high value that in-house lawyers add. In-house lawyers are often considered another general and administrative (G&A) service such as human resources, finance, information technology, and facilities management. Thus, in a company, the lawyers are viewed more like the nonlegal staff of a law firm: They are there to help support the company achieve its business goals, but they are not the drivers of the business model. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it’s an important difference to bear in mind. In the federal government, there is no “profit center versus cost center” issue. Government lawyers are recognized for playing a key role in drafting and interpreting regulations and legislation, as well as negotiating dispute resolutions and policy agreements. They often hold senior advisory roles and management positions, depending on the structure of the agency or office. 2. How much control will I have over my practice? In a law firm, with seniority, hard work, persistence, and a little luck, you will develop your own expertise and clients until you effectively have your own practice. This potential to create your own practice within a law firm has liberating benefits not unlike what drives entrepreneurs to start their own business. An in-house practice, however, is necessarily derivative of what the company is doing in the market operationally. If the company is not performing well, not closing many sales, and neither investing in research and development nor pursuing corporate acquisition targets, then your practice will be fairly quiet. You may have little ability to control the quantity or quality of the work that comes your way because the business managers are responsible for the company’s operational performance, which drives your practice. On the other hand, these uncontrollable factors can also be positive for your practice if the company is successful and active. A government practice, similarly, significantly depends on factors outside of your control, such as whether the president has signed legislation that requires your agency to adopt implementing regulations concerning an important public policy issue. 3. Is my job secure in an economic downturn? A law firm is possibly the most secure employer in the sense that if your practice is keeping you reasonably busy, you are unlikely to lose your job even during a recession. Yet there is no question that boom times make it easier to get quality work, grow your practice and make partner. In-house is certainly the most unstable environment for attorneys. If you are lucky enough to join a company and receive an equity interest before an economic boom, being in-house is akin to winning the lottery. If you join after the company’s value has already hit its peak, however, you are unlikely to get any benefit beyond your salary. If you are in-house during a recession or your company’s revenue is declining, or both, the financial managers of a company will likely notice that the revenue decline has caused the G&A costs as a percentage of revenue to grow to unacceptable levels, under industry standards. The company may decide to terminate some of its in-house lawyers to reduce costs. In a weaker economy, a government employer may impose hiring and salary freezes, reduce travel budgets, and even eliminate positions. Generally, however, a federal civil servant with at least three years’ tenure can expect relative security. 4. What about compensation? Most large law firms grant sizable annual raises to the entire class-year of associates, although for senior associates, the increases may be smaller or may not be granted classwide. If you are eventually elected partner, you can expect your salary to grow significantly, particularly if you originate your own clients and grow a large practice, though partner compensation formulas vary among law firms. At a company, your salary is unlikely to change significantly from year to year unless you are promoted into a more senior position. In-house staff lawyers are often compensated in line with midlevel to senior managers, while the general counsel is compensated in line with the company’s non-”C-level” senior executives. The greatest variable in compensation at public companies, however, is the equity compensation: The value of your company stock can permit you to retire early — or may be worth nothing if the company fails to perform. Government compensation, particularly on the Hill, is not as competitive as it was before law firms raised salaries to new heights, but it can provide a very comfortable living, with health benefits far superior to those in the private sector. 5. What is day-to-day life like? There can be no denying that in a law firm, the pressure to bill hours — coupled, in the case of senior attorneys, with the pressure to develop new clients — can make maintaining a balanced life difficult for some. However, with seniority and the development of your own practice, you can reach a level of peaceful coexistence with work demands. In-house and government life tends to be more intense than life at a law firm during regular business hours, with more meetings and client interaction than you will ever experience in a law firm, but you typically work fewer nights and weekends than in a law firm. 6. How is the attorney-client relationship different? In a law firm, it is difficult to generalize because the relationship depends on how the clients choose to utilize outside counsel. In some cases, your client may rely on you more than their own in-house counsel when faced with critical or complex issues. Other clients may involve you only after a matter has matured to a point where you can do little to influence its fundamental structure. As an in-house or government lawyer, your client is also your employer. This proximity alone helps to build a much closer relationship between the attorney and client. In addition, because involving you in a matter does not trigger a fee, you are more likely to get involved more frequently and at the earliest possible stages of business operations, when you can make the most impact. 7. What are my prospects for promotion? In many large law firms, you become eligible for partner when your class-year is first eligible, although that date can be deferred for some or all of the class. Generally, as you become a more senior associate, you effectively get a “silent” promotion as you are given greater responsibility and more complex assignments. Variables that a firm will consider in the partnership decision include your legal skills, the strategic importance of your practice to the firm, your client development skills, and sometimes intangibles such as the overall fiscal health of the law firm or the economy. The in-house path is less clear-cut. Generally, the job you are hired for is the job you keep, unless the person you report to leaves his or her position, or the company initiates a reorganization. In government, promotions are fairly routine until the attorney reaches the more senior grade levels of the pay scale. Due to the bottleneck at these levels, lateral moves within an agency are a fairly common means of rewarding strong performers. 8. Will I get quality training? Law firms have trained new lawyers for centuries, and by design, their business model allows for training. Most firms rely on the traditional system where senior lawyers supervise junior lawyers until they become capable of working with more autonomy. The lower billing rates of junior lawyers allow a margin of error due to the learning curve. In addition, law firms give junior associates exposure to a diversity of clients and legal issues more rapidly than a new lawyer would likely receive elsewhere. Corporations generally lack the infrastructure to teach the basics to new lawyers, and the “single-client” atmosphere is not an optimal environment for getting a well-rounded foundation in the profession. For this reason, companies typically shy away from hiring lawyers until they have at least three to five years of law firm experience. In the government, the quality and utility of the training depends on what you want to do. If you want to be a litigator, you will likely receive more courtroom-based litigation experience in the government than with a big law firm, as well as gain invaluable insights. If you plan to be a regulatory lawyer, the government will train you to be an expert on your agency’s subject area. You will also develop a depth of understanding of how the regulatory process works that is difficult to acquire from practicing only in a law firm. Beyond these two areas, however, a government agency will not teach you many of the skills that you will need to represent private clients. Of course, no two employers are alike, and you should do as much research and due diligence as possible before accepting a job with any employer, whether it is a company, a law firm, or the federal government. Ultimately, these three different legal paths serve different personal and professional needs, which will change as your career advances. Marc Martin is of counsel at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart’s Washington office. He can be reached at (202) 778-9859 or at [email protected].

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