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Reality Check: Gloria Noh Cannon Counsels Caution on Moving to an In-house Job

In their search for career satisfaction and work-life balance, some law firm attorneys consider moving to in-house counsel positions.  Those lawyers are often seeking fewer work hours, more interesting work, and greater job security.  For some attorneys, becoming an in-house lawyer may be the right move.  However, as Gloria Noh Cannon explains, before making such a move, "it is very important to fully understand the advantages and disadvantages of being an in-house attorney because the decision to go in-house is a very serious one that could greatly affect your long-term career."

Cannon is the Managing Director of the Los Angeles office of BCG Attorney Search.  Before entering legal recruiting, she divided her experience practicing law roughly evenly between working as an associate in a major law firm and as an in-house attorney for a prestigious private equity/investment management company that she had served while working for the law firm.  While she describes her in-house experience as "generally very positive," she encourages lawyers considering such a move to think about five realities that counter the conventional attitude about the shift from law firm to in-house work.

  • Going in-house does not necessarily mean that you will work fewer hours or have a better lifestyle than you do at a firm.  Cannon found herself working long hours and racing through days packed with activity, while she had no support staff to help with the more mundane tasks involved in her work.  Although the hours were more predictable in-house, and Cannon was usually able to leave the office at a reasonable hour and avoid working on weekends, she remarks that her in-house job "definitely was not the easier, laid-back, stress-free practice that associates envision to be the case for in-house lawyers."
  • After going in-house, it may be hard for you to return to private practice. Law firms will question your commitment to working for them for the long term since you have already left private practice once and might just be looking to earn some serious money before you move on to another in-house gig.  Also, firms will assume that your lawyering skills have deteriorated during your in-house stint because you may have relied on outside counsel to handle sophisticated matters and you may not have spent much time researching case law, writing pleadings and briefs, and arguing cases in court.
  • Your in-house work might not be as challenging or interesting as the cases you handled while you were at the law firm. It's possible that you will still  get a lot of hands-on responsibility.  On the other hand, your work may involve more routine matters like counseling the company's employees on compliance and human resource issues, and acting as a manger for outside counsel--who are handling the really interesting cases.
  • You will probably earn less money in-house. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, very few in-house opportunities pay as well as "Big Law" firms do.  If you go in-house, you should expect a significant cut in pay.
  • All things considered, you may be at more risk of being laid off from an in-house position than you would be at a law firm. Unlike their law firm colleagues, in-house lawyers do not generate revenue for the business.  By contrast, companies often consider their in-house attorneys as "expendable overhead costs" that they can easily replace by outsourcing their legal services.  As mentioned above, if you are laid off, returning to private practice may be very difficult. Moreover, finding another in-house job might be hard because there are relatively few in-house positions available and companies often seek in-house lawyers with experience in a specific industry.

Despite these potential drawbacks, Cannon enjoyed her in-house work, and calls her old company "a wonderful environment."  She explains that she left the company because she had grown tired of practicing law.  She also points out several advantages of working as an in-house lawyer, including:

  • not having to keep track of your billable hours,
  • no pressure to build a book of business or generate new work from existing clients, and
  • being the "client" of the company's law firm and enjoying perks like extravagant meals, entertainment, and tickets to major sports events.

Cannon closes her article with some helpful tips for lawyers who may be looking for options outside of private practice.

  • Examine carefully why you want to leave private practice and "make absolutely sure that you do not want to go back to it" because, once you leave, it may be very difficult to return.
  • Consider alternatives to in-house work such as moving to a different law firm or a different practice area at your current firm.  The change in environment might change your outlook on private practice.
  • Conduct due diligence on available in-house opportunities before you make your move.

Like any career move, the transition from law firm lawyer to in-house lawyer has advantages and disadvantages.  As Gloria Noh Cannon has explained, realistic expectations for such a switch are essential to making the right choice for you.

By Steve Imparl, guest blogger

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