In or out?

July 9, 2013

In-house can be wonderful, says the Survivalist, but beware the downsides

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You’ve worked every evening this week. In fact, on Wednesday, you didn’t get back to your flat until just after midnight, and you were up again at 6am to be back in the office for 8am. You’re exhausted.

And this is not the first week like this. In fact it’s the tenth. And you’ve worked most weekends too. Your relationship is creaking under the strain, you haven’t seen any of your friends in weeks and your cat is looking at you with increasing contempt.

If your private practice life looks like this, it’s hardly surprising you want to go in-house. The advantages are manifold – escaping the punishing hours, escaping partnership politics, escaping being treated like a dog by ungrateful partners.

House proud

You’ll hardly hear a word against in-house. Anyone who’s gone there tends to sing its praises, regardless of whether they are actually liking it or not.

In-house also has the allure of having once been the Cinderella practice, less well-paid, without the status of private practice, often working in businesses with no experience of dealing with lawyers. Then Cinders found those glass slippers…

The growth in prestige of in-house life – aided and abetted by an effusive legal press, eager to wave its relationship with in-house counsel in the face of sceptical or derisive private practice lawyers – and much better pay has propelled in-house to the forefront of many young lawyers’ ideal careers, not least because private practice seems determined to become steadily less attractive.

If the phrase ‘grass is greener’ drifts across your mind now, good, because it should. Oh, the Survivalist is not decrying in-house as a career option, far from it, but it’s not for everyone, and not everyone will tell you that.

House style

To begin with, the escapees to in-house will tend to paint a very rosy picture, not least because they have escaped, but also because when their destination turns out not to be quite as paradisaical as they had imagined, that’s the last thing they want anyone else to know.

Recruiters, equally, have every interest in selling hard, and the competition for roles – literally hundreds of lawyers might go for a sole in-house job in a ‘sexy’ company – creates a scarcity factor which makes it doubly-appealing and all the more satisfying for the successful candidate.

In more honest moments, however, some of the brighter in-house lawyers will admit that the low legal content of many in-house positions fails to inspire their little grey cells; they get bored, in other words.

The thrill of lording it over former masters soon becomes a little old when you realise you are not a lawyer in the sense you were, but a legal services manager, something of a sophisticated procurement person. Equally, while maverick personalities of the kind still found in many top law firms are thankfully rarer in corporates, many in-house lawyers find that other executives have quite a low opinion of them. One sales director known to the Survivalist simply refers to his company’s legal team as the “Computer Says No” department.

House arrest

It’s also worth noting that control over your career diminishes drastically when you go in-house. You have literally no idea when your company is about to be taken over or go bust, both of which happen much more in corporate life, and because you are simply now ‘support staff’, you are often first in the firing line for the cost-savings accompanying any M&A. As you go higher up the tree, the likelihood you will be fired rises immeasurably.

It’s also worth thinking that the person most likely to be made general counsel is the deputy general counsel. If you’re the deputy, that can mean waiting years for the “dead man’s shoes” scenario to arise. If you’re at the upper levels and find yourself redundant after merger, you will find a similar position in another company very difficult to find, for exactly the same reason.

The advantages of in-house are obvious, just make sure you know what you’re getting into. Don’t sleepwalk your way into a career cul-de-sac where you’ll be bored and itching to get back.

More on this later. Meanwhile, stay frosty. TS

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