A corporate career or private practice? During my 18 years in the search business, this choice always seemed clear to me. Part of that is personal: I became a happy professional only after leaving “Big Law.” Mainly, though, my bias comes from literally thousands of conversations with attorneys. An overwhelming percentage of you want to get in-house or stay there.
Walking into last month’s 12th annual InsideCounsel SuperConference, however, I found myself wondering about whether the proverbial grass is truly greener. The “lifestyle” difference, always code for sheer number of working hours, has evaporated for 80 percent of in-house counsel. That percentage is an accurate, educated guess, by the way. It’s almost impossible now for inside counsel to avoid long days and a 24/7 availability mindset.
Along with lifestyle, the two main pro/con topics historically have been money and job security. With some exceptions, the money is still much better at law firms. And as I’ve pointed out often, job security is a tricky thing. Inside counsel are vulnerable to leadership changes, mergers and bankruptcy, not to mention garden variety corporate politics and occasional waves of “rightsizing” headcount. A law firm lawyer with a book of business is secure or, if not, can move easily. I realize, of course, that most attorneys are not rainmakers.
So, during the breaks and cocktail hours at SuperConference, I sparked some conversation by raising the question anew: Is an in-house career path still better?
Your feedback confirmed the critical change impacting this discussion, change from which I have benefitted personally. In a nutshell, the epicenter of stimulating legal work is now located squarely within corporate law departments. Law firms are paid well for subject matter expertise and to deal at ground level with litigation. But strategy, executive counseling, resource allocation, quasi-business decisions—the good stuff—happens inside. In-house counsel operate at a high-value level for their employers.
That may not be a news item to you, but it’s worth noting that the state of corporate practice has evolved from a less-prestigious place. Truth be told, law departments housed many B- and C-caliber attorneys for a long time, and that worked because those lawyers were given B- and C-level responsibilities.
Since lifestyle (i.e. hours), money and job security don’t hold up as logical arguments for moving in-house, it may seem illogical that law departments now draw primarily A-caliber talent. It’s because the best and brightest want to be where the action is. They enjoy the kind of truly general practice that can only be found in-house in 2012. The best lawyers want to be in the room with executives to advise on deals and decisions.
So, yes, a career inside still beats the law firm path. More than ever, in fact. But for those who seek a lifestyle change (i.e. hours), satisfaction now lies outside the practice of law altogether.