McKenzie: Is an in-house authorized place best for you?
By J. Mark McKenzie
Let’s examine the differences between working in-house and working as a partner / partner in a law firm.
When I graduated from Indiana University’s Masons School of Law in December 1978, those of us beginning our careers believed that our employment opportunities were limited to working in law firms or government agencies. However, over the years there has been a third option: to work as an in-house attorney for a private company, a position that has grown in importance and importance to the companies they serve. This column is dedicated to reviewing the pros and cons of doing in-house work and as they say, “On the other hand, the grass is always greener.” I believe it’s really just a different shade of green after working on both sides – several years as General Counsel for a medium-sized insurance company and two positions in private practice.
Internal legal teams can vary in size, scope, and responsibilities. From a single attorney to large in-house legal teams, here are some of the key differences to consider when considering working in-house. First of all, the most popular internship experience is in private practice between three and six years. The reason for this is that in-house teams are simply not set up to train new lawyers compared to private practice. Often times, when a lawyer moves from a private practice to an in-house practice, it is a win-win experience for the law firm as the lawyer who goes into the practice understands and knows the legal needs of the company he or she is serving will be active and doing well Regarded as a problem solver with a high level of legal acumen, which is particularly important to the company. In matters that require assistance from an outside attorney, the attorney who works in-house will likely reach out to their old colleagues for assistance and the firm’s loyalty to a client will actually be strengthened in the long run.
Some of the advantages of in-house operations are:
1. More respect from employees due to the tendency to act more like a team. In addition to billing a sufficient number of hours in a law firm, you also need to create a work product that rivals that of your peers and is superior to them if you want to get top-level assignments. By working towards a common goal as an in-house attorney, your client’s success has the benefit of greater satisfaction for all who contributed.
2. While compensation may not be as high, there is usually greater job security and other perks, including stock options with publicly traded companies.
3. Without a corporate crisis, you have more control over your working hours and are not subject to the whim of a customer who calls you on Friday at 5pm and needs something by Monday morning.
However, internal lawyer jobs are not without risks:
1. The decision to become an in-house attorney can make it more difficult for you to find work in a law firm again.
2. While you are not required to keep track of billable hours, you are likely to be paid less than your colleagues in a law firm.
3. You may also find that bonuses based on hours worked are simply not available to in-house attorneys.
4. If your business succeeds and is bought, the buyer may not have the same perceived need for your services. (However, if your company goes down, all employees can lose their jobs.)
In essence, in-house attorneys can find their job very rewarding if they match their expectations and talents appropriately, since the demands on the job are so diverse.
In assessing and evaluating whether working in-house is a preferred career path, examining an attorney’s personal characteristics can be helpful. Important attributes for internal lawyers are problem solving, team players, responsiveness and proactive action in order to make the necessary changes in the company. While compensation is essential, more than 60 hours of work weeks and endless paperwork that comes with being billed in six minute increments can wear out. Working in a team environment versus “eating what you kill” is attractive to many savvy people. While a medium-sized law firm (20-60 lawyers) can offer a good combination of solid training in a variety of areas of law, plus a good salary and early hands-on experience, the bottom line is that regardless of size, a law firm means your needs are frequent need to take a back seat to the client’s needs: they need to be happy as long as what they are asking for is moral, ethical and legal. Businesses of all sizes stay financially successful based largely on how much they can bill their customers. Every minute that attorneys do not bill is “wasted” time that could otherwise be used to generate revenue. Since customers are vital to a company’s livelihood, employees must seek to ultimately be responsible for doing new business or producing rain. While the potential to make big bucks can attract many young lawyers into the life of a large corporation, the cost of giving up control of your personal life can be significant. “If the customer needs you there on Saturday and Sunday, you are there!”
To sum up, the internal difference is that in return for the pressure of not being a rainmaker or recruiting new clients, not worrying about billable hours and having greater job stability as part of an internal legal team in which Salary balancing generally plays a meaningful role in the comparatively more comfortable lifestyle that many in-house attorneys enjoy.
Whatever you choose, you know that there is no substitute for hard work and consistent demonstration of good judgment on all of the legal issues that you are involved in resolving. In the long run, if you pursue what inspires you and what fuels your efforts, knowing that you made a difference:
• to your company,
• about your job,
• to your family,
• about your goals and
• your personal balance in life.
It’s really just a different shade of green! •
• • J. Mark McKenzie is a partner at Riley Bennett Egloff LLP. The opinions expressed are those of the author.