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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

November 2013 Edition

Law firm to in-house: A different type of mountain, but not insurmountable

Michael Sachs, Managing Director, Major, Lindsey & Africa

Michael SachsAs a recruiter who specializes in conducting in-house attorney searches on behalf of corporate clients, I frequently receive inquiries from attorneys about whether my organization might be able to assist that attorney with his or her own personal in-house job search. Many of these attorneys are already working in-house, but a significant number of the calls and e-mails I receive are from extremely impressive law firm associates and partners.

I return every single one of these calls and e-mails from the "law firm world," and almost always try to set up an in-person meeting. Yet, while the ultimate result of these meetings is nearly always positive, it can still be an awkward conversation, because the reality is that many law firm attorneys – no matter the stage of their career – will find it difficult to make the transition from private practice to corporate America.

There are various reasons for this difficulty, and for those of you who have already made the switch to in-house counsel I think you'll agree. The first is straightforward: blame the lack of movement on a still sluggish economy. It's basic supply and demand. Law firms are still not altogether healthy, so when you add a lack of robust opportunities with a surplus of attorneys on the market, the average law firm attorney with his or her resume in hand will encounter obstacles.

A second reason for why law firm attorneys can find an in-house transition difficult is because corporate clients tend to hire someone who already has in-house experience. Indeed, if two candidates were identical in terms of credentials, interpersonal skills, business acumen and intelligence, but one is at a law firm and one is in-house, a corporate client will nearly always gravitate toward the in-house attorney. On occasion, they may even choose someone with fewer credentials if the candidate is already in-house.

Law firm attorneys can be flabbergasted by this fact, but here is what corporate counsel might say:

  • They will argue that it is a difficult transition to go from being a revenue generator (at a law firm) to being an expense (at a company).
  • They will also add that a law firm attorney will struggle with the fact that the pace of things in-house is so much quicker and less precise; a law firm attorney might very quickly yearn for the days of drafting ten-page memos and having all night to proofread and mark up a complicated agreement. That skill set, which is so appropriately valuable at a law firm, can sometimes be completely disregarded in-house.
  • Conversely, the skill of being able to navigate and develop relationships in a heavily matrixed organization with different reporting structures and a mix of lawyers and non-lawyers is more valuable than pearls while being in-house, whereas at a law firm it can be minimized if your billable hours or book of business is high enough.

A third reason for this difficulty in transition is industry experience. Many clients hire us with the idea that they want to find someone to join their legal department who already has the appropriate industry experience. Retail clients want retail experience, oil and gas clients want oil and gas experience, hospitality clients want... you get the picture. It's one thing to say that you have worked on some (or even many) matters for retail clients as part of your law firm portfolio; it's quite another to say that you go to work every day at a retail company and one hundred percent of your job is retail-focused.

Lastly, there are compensation reasons why law firm attorneys can't move in-house. While it's a fallacy that in-house attorneys are not as well-compensated as law firm attorneys, it is true that an attorney's base salary will almost never be as high as at a law firm. So if a law firm attorney won't accept a cut in his or her base pay, it will be extremely difficult for them to move over to a corporate client. A law firm attorney would have to accept and acknowledge that their future compensation might come in many different buckets, including base pay, target bonus, equity and other corporate benefits, and that the total of these buckets will be close to or maybe even higher than their current compensation at a firm.

So is there no hope for the law firm attorney looking to transition? Not at all. If you've attended a good college and law school, have joined a top tier law firm, and survived the particular rigors and challenges of BigLaw, there is absolutely no doubt that you have the work ethic and energy level and intelligence and acumen to "go in-house." A significant stint at an AmLaw 200 firm does still mean something; indeed, it means a lot to employers.

But a law firm attorney can't rest on those laurels if they want to transition. If you're looking to go in-house (or even just continue your in-house career), you need to network; you need to keep your eyes open; you need to use your savvy to target certain opportunities and companies and use nuance and the "connectors" you have developed throughout your career to find the right open position. Indeed, many law firm attorneys will find that a fruitful pathway to his or her dream in-house opportunity is through joining an existing client's legal department. These clients are loyal to your firm, and you are a known (and presumably admired) quantity to them already.

Law firm attorneys also have to realize, at the outset of this process, that moving from a law firm to a company is a BIG change. Almost certainly, once the move is made, he or she will not go back to private practice, both because of personal choice and also business reality. Law firm attorneys have to accept this reality, and also communicate to prospective employers that they understand the consequences of the decision they are making, what they are leaving behind, and what they are gaining by moving in-house. It would also be helpful for law firm attorneys to have the mindset that they are behind the 8-ball with respect to in-house searches, so they do not get aggrieved, huffy or too upset if they don't score the first job or two that they pursue.

Going in-house can sometimes be simple, but more often it is a laborious process. But to every law firm attorney I meet who reaches out to me for help, I say something like this: "So far in your law firm career, you've worked so hard for so long to accomplish so much. Moving in-house, if you want to do it, is the next mountain in front of you. And it might be a big, big mountain. So it's time to start climbing, just like you've always done."

About the Author

Michael Sachs is a Managing Director in the Chicago office of Major, Lindsey & Africa where he specializes in placing attorneys at all levels – from junior counsel to General Counsels – in corporate legal departments in a wide range of industries and locations. Michael can be reached at (312) 896-8566 and View more insights from Michael and other members of the Major, Lindsey & Africa team online.