I used to practice corporate law and as such, I saw many friends, classmates, and colleagues who also practiced transactional law go in-house. A good number of these folks tell me that going in-house was the best move they made. A few, though, have reached out to me for assistance in returning to practice at a firm. It's often very surprising - and frustrating - for these attorneys to understand that once you've gone in-house, it is difficult to break back into law firm practice. The truth is, leaving a firm to go work inside the (often smaller) legal department of a company disrupts the growth model law firms have set out for their attorneys, and that their clients have come to rely upon.
Law firm expectations
Law firms have certain expectations for how and when attorneys grow. Lawyers inside large law firms are expected to specialize in a particular practice area rather quickly. Associates are expected to work hard and impress senior associates and partners, develop relationship-building skills with clients, and then make partner, take a counsel position, or move to a smaller firm. Throughout an associate's time in a law firm, it is expected that: the associate will become increasingly competent in her work; she will be given increased responsibility; because of her developing skills and efficiency, her billing rate will increase each year; the firm's clients will rely upon and trust her increasingly; she will develop more and more contacts, which she will be able to leverage into business; and, she will develop strong management skills with which she will be able to supervise younger attorneys and paralegals. Every step of the way, the associate is growing in the eyes of the law firm.
It is particularly problematic for an attorney to go in-house before spending at least four or five years at a law firm. In a law firm, attorneys are trained and developed to become the best at what they do. As a young associate, you will typically work for mid-level or senior associates who will supervise you as you become more knowledgeable and proficient in your field. In most large law firms, the work junior associates undertake is reviewed at several different levels. It is funneled up the chain of command and reviewed by midlevel associates, senior associates, and partners to ensure the best possible work product. Every step of the way, a system of checks and review is in place inside law firms to ensure that each lawyer inside a law firm produces outstanding work product. This, in turn, creates very good lawyers over time. Once an attorney goes in-house, he is unlikely to have this level of review over his work.
Because the legal departments of most corporations are smaller in number than the amount of attorneys at a law firm, more often than not, the in-house attorneys are expected to become less specialized in their practices, and more of generalists who wear many different hats.
While the idea of being a generalist might be appealing to you, you need to realize that the skills of a generalist will certainly not serve you well if you ever want to go back to a law firm. Most law firms demand their attorneys specialize very early in their careers and continue as specialists in one practice group or another throughout their careers. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons that in-house counsel turn to outside law firms - they need the experts to weigh in on the specifics of a matter. Attorneys at law firms keep up-to-date on the subject matter in which they specialize. As a generalist, you will be an expert in nothing. While you may find it more interesting to participate in several different types of work, over time, you will simply be making yourself increasingly less marketable to law firms.
By leaving a law firm to go in-house, you have sent the message to future potential law firm employers that you are not committed to their way of practicing law. Law firms want attorneys to be committed to their system, their growth, and their manner of practicing law. Going in-house does not signal to firms your commitment to their method of practicing law. When you decide to go in-house, you take yourself off the track of training, growth, and development from a law firm's perspective. Additionally, you run the risk of potentially raising a red flag that you are not committed to practicing law firm hours, which is an assumption that can be extremely difficult to overcome.
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