Going Out: Should I Return to a Law Firm After Working In-House?

For many attorneys, landing a job in a corporate law department is the legal profession's equivalent of Nirvana. "Going in-house" can mean job security and a world devoid of law firm billable hour requirements.

But believe it or not, some lawyers have chosen to leave those coveted in-house jobs to -- gasp! -- enter the law firm rat race. Some of these trend-bucking attorneys want the trial opportunities offered at firms. Others want to work for multiple clients, rather than just one. And still others want the income potential that large firms offer.

The good news for attorneys is that "going out" -- moving from in-house to law firm -- is increasingly accepted in this era of lawyer mobility. To help you decide if this is a move you should make, let's review some of the challenges and benefits of being corporate counsel and law-firm lawyer.

Working as a lawyer in-house means you'll get to participate in corporate business decisions, and there's tremendous camaraderie and a sense of ownership in helping with things like getting products on the market and protecting patents and trademarks. Also, you don't have business development responsibilities when you work in-house. You'll never have to worry about where the next project is going to come from -- instead, you can spend 100 percent of your time practicing law.

But the upsides of being corporate counsel can also be interpreted as downsides. For example, you're working for a single "client" -- the company -- which could get boring. And while you don't have to worry about business development, you do have to worry about whether the company will survive in today's tumultuous economy.

Also, consider this: if you've been in-house and you're interviewing for a law-firm job, you probably have no recent track record for business development. The only client you may already have is your former employer. That may be enough for some firms to hire you -- but it may not.

If you do leave an in-house job to join a law firm, one of the downsides there is the dreaded billable hour. You'll have to account for every fraction of your work day. And don't forget the business development duties. Whether you join a firm as an associate, senior counsel or partner, you'll be expected to market your practice to potential clients. And you'll be juggling as many as 30 different clients and matters, so you can't quite immerse yourself as much as in-house lawyers do.

On the upside, you'll get the advantage of big firm resources absent from most in-house legal departments -- everything from advanced technology to hundreds of fellow lawyers of varying practice areas to late-night word processors and effective legal assistants. Also, if you have a passion for trial work that's not being fulfilled at your corporate counsel job, law-firm life may be perfect for you. And you'll get the security and variety of working for lots of different clients. In addition, law firms provide huge growth opportunities for lawyers -- in-house lawyers, on the other hand, are employees, with no opportunity to become an owner in the business.

Of course, don't forget the all-important salary issue. With first-year associates earning upwards of $150,000 and partners taking home more than $500,000 a year at many large firms, the income potential at law firms is huge.

The bottom line? There are positives and negatives to practicing law in-house and at a law firm. Weigh these real-life ups and downs before making a move. The good news is, in today's legal market, the choice to move is yours.


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