So you’ve decided to take the plunge in-house. You have likely had to accept a pay cut. Not the worst thing to have happen, given that you’re about to get your life back. But most in-house counsel do not make the mid-six figure salaries of senior associates, or junior partners.
You can over time, but in general, your salary’s going to drop in exchange for the sanity of a schedule. A “what,” you say? That’s right, a set schedule. In my position, I am aware that quarter end, and especially year end, are going to be extremely hectic times, but the luxury of being able to plan for them is worth every minute. Over the past few years, I have: had dinner with my family most evenings; coached various sports teams for my children; scheduled, and taken, full vacations (sans Blackberry); and enjoyed the holidays, save for New Year’s Eve.
Do I miss firm life? No, I do not.
Do I wish I was making more money?
Sometimes. I am admittedly envious of the commission structure that our company offers and that the sales force enjoys. They work very hard, no doubt, but after I close a multi-million-dollar deal negotiation, I have to be satisfied with a lot of “thanks” and perhaps a free dinner. I understand fully that there needs to be a separation between me and direct compensation to avoid conflicts of interest, but to be able to share in that commission pool looks enticing.
One way to share in a company’s long-term fortunes, as in-house counsel, is to take a position that offers equity. Having “skin in the game” can certainly be rewarding, figuratively and literally, especially if the necessary liquidity transaction occurs. The downside is, of course, the “handcuffs” that accompany such an arrangement, but the payoff can be quite lucrative. When exploring new possibilities, it is appropriate to inquire about the “horizon” for such transactions. A twenty-year horizon is likely too far in the future for a realization of an equity/compensation trade off. A five-year horizon is more in line with a decent opportunity turning into a very good opportunity. These time horizons, and the level of risk that each entails, are examples of good career fits for “lifer” as opposed to “entrepreneurial” personalities.
I heard from a reader this past week who is enduring a nine-month job search. I encouraged this person not to give up hope, an in-house position can take months to acquire, and that’s after you get your foot in the door. Companies tend not to move quickly on these positions. The thinking is that the right “fit” for the job includes someone who will be long-term. Law firms understand that associate attrition is par for the course, and tend to hire more expediently. Companies expect longevity from their counsel. You also should expect to stay in-house long term, else why leave firm life? Your salary will likely be reduced, you’re going to lose your expense account, there will be no more junkets to far off cities for training or marketing events, and no more summer lunches and outings. While these things may seem petty on paper, they do make the ridiculously difficult path of an associate a bit more tolerable.
That said, I encourage young lawyers to practice in a major metro area for a few years before they settle down and have families. Those 2000+ billable requirements are easier to stomach when you don’t have a spouse at home, or children, wondering why you are gone for days on end. Also, those high-pressure situations and occasional overnights in the office can be good training for the day when you are tasked with ultimate responsibility for your work. When you’re in-house, there is no room for pushing off the pressure to a partner; you are the partner, for all intents and purposes. The buck stops with you. Further, once you’re settled, the relative predictability of an in-house position can make any monetary sacrifices worthwhile.
I know that “work is work,” but you do need to enjoy what you do to a large extent. I am reminded of two attorneys in particular who live and breathe litigation. One is fortunate enough to do what he loves for a major corporation. Another attorney is fine where he is as a partner in a law firm. Both have vastly different lifestyles, but both are happy in their work. That is because they understand who they are as people, and as attorneys. I would term both as “lifers,” but with different needs and expectations of what their careers should bring. An attorney going in-house should have the self-awareness of which personality type suits them, which can result in a pleasant transition and a long-term satisfaction with the path they’ve chosen.
Next time: now you’re in-house; congratulations. Now what?
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.