You may be one of those people who realized early on that law firm partnership is not for you. For me, this was the case even before I started law school. Law was going to be a second career for me, and by the day of my first 1L class, I already had two small children vying for my attention. Surprisingly, having small kids while in law school full time was not easy. You really need to be engaged in your kids’ interests, which can be hard when you’re also trying to dodge Socratic bullets for the first time. There was one semester when it literally took me an entire week to defeat the Elite Four in Pokémon Yellow. Tough times, tough times.
I later went into Biglaw with the understanding that the experience would look good on my résumé, and that I would get what people refer to as “great training.” (And, of course, the money was nothing to complain about, either.) And I actually did enjoy the work. But you can’t work Biglaw hours and expect to just breeze through all of the Pokémon versions — Gold, Ruby, Platinum, Black, etc. — there are so many of them! It’s just not possible, and I will challenge anyone who says it is.
So once you’ve decided that the in-house life is the life for you (or that there’s no way in hell they’ll make someone who’s so obsessed with kids’ games partner), when’s the best time to make the move? Well, it depends….
First, how many years are you willing to slave away at a law firm? Generally, the longer you spend and the larger the firm, the more “great training” you’ll receive. “Great training” refers to drafting, negotiations, legal analysis, and convincing high-powered executives to trust you with their souls. They say that once you go in-house, your legal training stops. This is just law firms being all drama of course, but to their dramatic credit, in-house work is pretty different from law firm training, and I usually recommend that lawyers who want to go in-house stay for as long as they can bear it at a law firm.
Second question: how many jobs are out there? There are some in-house jobs available for brand spanking new law school grads, but they’re so rare they’re (almost) not worth mentioning. And they’re mainly at smaller companies.
Mid-sized to larger companies usually want lawyers who’ve had prior training, even for their most junior-level positions. No large company wants their lawyers learning six months into the job that their coffee cup should be kept 10 feet away from original executed contracts at all times — ya gotta know that stuff from day one, son! There’s a sprinkling of jobs available for J.D.s who are about three years out of school, with many more entry-level jobs available for mid-level attorneys (about four to ten years out). The number of spots for experienced lawyers (more than ten years out) decreases substantially as you move up the pyramidal structure of a company’s legal department.
Which brings us to the third question: How quickly do you want to move up in the company? Generally, companies give more value to years spent in Biglaw than for years spent in-house. So suffer, spend five years in Biglaw, and you can probably move into a higher in-house position than someone who only has five in-house years of experience. Of course, you may be one of those people who just wants to go in-house as soon as humanly possible, even if it means waiting a lot longer to move up to the general counsel level. But if your goals are more complicated than that (read: you crave power and wealth, and want to retire before 83), hang around your nicely decorated law firm office for several years, because by the way, your in-house office (assuming it is an office and not a cube) will probably be smaller with less nice furniture.
In sum, consider how timing will affect the training you receive, the number of jobs available, and your advancement opportunities.
This is one of those posts that needs a lot of disclaimers: I’ve only worked in large firms and at a large company in the Northeast region, doing corporate transactional work. I have met a lot of in-house attorneys at various companies, and I twist their realities to fit my opinions on these types of issues. And I’m not a recruiter, so my estimations of the numbers of spots there are as you move up levels could be way off. But I’m pretty sure about that last one. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s true in the Pokémon world.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.