When I graduated from law school, I decided that I would take a job at a large law firm because it would maximize my chances of going in-house. I had no idea what either job would entail, but it seemed like a sensible plan. And, even without knowing what it would be like to be a litigation associate in Biglaw, I suspected it would be bad enough that an exit strategy would be necessary.
A few years later, I switched my exit strategy and went to a small firm. I decided that I could not wait for three to five more years to get the skills required to go in-house. So, I went to a small firm to get “hands on experience” and position myself for my new exit strategy: a federal government job. Then, hiring for federal jobs froze, and the few openings were impossible to get unless you had the exact experience required and could figure out your grade level. Consequently, I am currently reformulating my exit strategy. I am contemplating running for president or becoming a certified yoga instructor.
I have yet to meet a lawyer who did not plan or fantasize about his or her exit strategy from law firm associate, be it Biglaw or small. I blame it on the nightmare that is billing hours — even if the requirement might be less at some places. The most common exit strategies are (1) in-house and (2) fitness professional.
Is it possible, however, for a small-firm associate to go in-house, or is the small-firm associate required to follow my path and find a new exit strategy?
I assumed that it would be much more difficult to make the transition to in-house coming from a small firm. Indeed, many small-firm attorneys with whom I speak describe themselves as “outside general counsel” to companies that either do not have an in-house department or have a small one.
I decided to consult an expert, so I asked in-house columnist Mark Herrmann if it is easier to go in-house from a large firm rather than a small one. He said that there is no general rule about the “best route to in-house.” Generally speaking, however:
It is probably true that big law firms more often work for larger clients, which employ more in-house lawyers (and thus offer more opportunities). . . . And [large firms] have more in-house contacts . . . That creates lots of opportunities for partners to recommend associates for in-house slots, with the hope of getting business in return some day.
Conversely, “many small firms work for smaller clients, which may make moving in-house harder.” There are, however, “exceptions to that rule (such as Bartlit Beck, for example).”
In other words, it might be easier to get an in-house job coming from Biglaw than a small firm, but it is not impossible. Here, however, is the rub. To get in-house, regardless of whether you have Biglaw or small firm experience, you might also need in-house experience. As Herrmann explained, “many corporations prefer to hire as in-house lawyers people who already have in-house experience.” I believe this is what Black’s Law Dictionary describes as a “chicken and egg problem.”
While existing small-firm and Biglaw associates are left to wrestle with the dilemma of how to get in-house experience to get an in-house job, recent graduates might be in luck. I regularly receive emails from aspiring small-firm associates asking me how to get a job at a small firm. To these recent graduates, let me offer you a new career path. Start your career in-house. Lucky for you, some companies do not need attorneys with in-house experience (or any law firm experience).
According to the Wall Street Journal, “some [companies ] are . . . hiring directly from law-school campuses rather than recruiting lawyers who had previously spent a few years at a major firm. These companies are growing weary of paying high hourly rates for inexperienced law-firm associates.”
The leader in this trend is Hewlett-Packard Co., which began recruiting on campus in 2009. HP’s General Counsel, Michael Holston, explained the company’s reasoning as follows: “With the downturn in the economy, some law firms were sharply downsizing their student hiring, and this created an opportunity for H-P to go directly to the law schools instead.”
Everyone agrees that in this economy, lawyers must be flexible in their career plans and their exit strategies. So, if going in-house is part of your “exit strategy,” you may need to rearrange your plan and start there. If it is as good as many people assume, you may not need an exit strategy. And, if it is not, you can go to a small firm where, as we have heard many times, they want people with experience and good client skills. Who could have better client skills than one who was previously the client?
If all else fails, grab your yoga mat and opt for Plan C. Perhaps you can turn the studio in to a “full-service” studio that offers Lululemon pants, chai lattes, and legal services (at flat fees).
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.