Going in house versus working at a law firm can seem like a dream for many lawyers. For some, they see it as an opportunity to have some work-life balance in the legal profession. Some lawyers crave business and love being in the corporate world.
This is the first of many posts, chronicling life from the inside of a large corporate legal department.
What is the difference between practicing law at a law firm and practicing in-house?
1. The bottom line. In a law firm, the bottom line is the billable hour. That is how the law firm makes money. In a corporation, money tends to revolve around business development and sales. A lawyer at a law firm is focused largely on building and maintaining the clientele base and providing thorough work to the external client. In house, however, the focus on helping business teams close large deals.
2. Networking. Law firm attorneys are expected to network to generate new clients for the firm. An in house attorney is networking to gain knowledge of new issues, new methods or new products that can benefit the legal department. Also, an in house attorney tends to network more within the company.
3. The substantive knowledge. A lawyer at a large firm can be more niche and specialized. A lawyer in a corporate legal department, however, will often find that they are the jack of many trades (if not the jack of all trades). A lawyer working on corporate contracts, for example, might need to understand employment laws, UCC, tax laws, privacy laws, and intellectual property laws. The difference however, is in the depth of knowledge. In many cases where a legal topic becomes too deep, in house counsel will outsource it to a law firm.
4. The hours. In house counsel still have a large workload. But many of them find that they can leave at a reasonable time on most days, if there isn't an urgent deal to close. Not every law firm has long hours. However, the law firm culture is notorious for keeping associates at their desks overnight. Don't be fooled, though. In house attorneys do work long hours and weekends when there are million dollar deals on the line.
5. The pay. It's no secret that law firm attorneys are paid a lot more than in house attorneys. In some cases, the pay can even out-- particularly as the in house attorney climbs the ranks. However, a typical law firm associate at a large firm can have a starting salary of almost $200,000 per year. By contrast, a recent salary posted at a Fortune 500 company in Silicon Valley for an in house attorney with three to five years of experience was $158,000. And, when he was hired, that attorney sat in a cube with the paralegal staff, as opposed to the swanky office that an attorney at a large law firm will have. As you hit partner level at large firms, you're looking and raking in $500,000 a year or more. Even at a VP level as an in house attorney, chances that you'll be hitting the half-a-mil mark are modest. Of course, once you hit the GC mark, then we're talking millions.
The bottom line is this-- work where you fit. If you like teams, business, budgets, PowerPoint, and versatility, then in house might be right for you. If you prefer working niche, developing business, and working independently, then law firm life might be a better fit.
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