Some general counsel of public companies return to private practice involuntarily: The new CEO changes the management team, or your GC job becomes redundant after a bigger fish acquires your company.
But a relatively few voluntarily choose to leave the perceived comfort of being the top dog in an in-house law department to resume the battle of private practice.
That’s why I raised an eyebrow when a guy (or gal) who I’ve known for a couple of decades recently left his (or her) GC spot to return to big firm life.
Let me give the details needed to make the story worth telling, while concealing enough to protect my friend’s identity. This person had worked at firms small and large, became general counsel of a Fortune 1000 company within the last three to five years, and left within the last year to return to an Am Law 20 firm. When I heard that this person had returned to private practice, I could feel a blog post waiting to happen, so I naturally picked up the phone.
Here’s why my friend left the life of Riley to return to the big firm fray:
My amigo gave four reasons for the change. I believe three of them.
First, he (or she) said that “the GC job is all-consuming.”
That’s the justification that I don’t accept. It’s true that many general counsel are ferociously busy, but that doesn’t distinguish the life of a GC from the life of most big firm partners. Sitting at the eye of six months of discovery with depositions lined up like the Bataan Death March is pretty darned all-consuming. And trying a case to a jury for three months in northwest South Dakota ain’t exactly a walk in the park. Plenty of legal jobs are all-consuming, and the GC slot is no worse than many of the others.
Second, my confidant said that “working as a general counsel, you definitely have a boss or two.”
This, I believe. (In fact, I’ve written about it elsewhere.) As a partner at a firm, you may have to deal with the usual assortment of crazy people: deranged opposing counsel; nutty clients; insane judges; batty partners. But you don’t have a boss. If a client asks you to fly to Philadelphia, you buy a ticket; you don’t first clear it with your boss. It’s an odd feeling to move from a relatively unstructured partnership into the necessarily rigid corporate hierarchy.
As a lower level lawyer in a corporation, you report to either a lawyer or someone in a business unit. That person approves your travel and expenses, is responsible for “managing” you, and evaluates you at year-end. As the general counsel, you’re under the watchful eye of the CEO, and perhaps also the CFO or others. That’s just not the same as being a partner at a firm.
Third, and on a related note, my buddy said that he (or she) “missed the autonomy of working at a firm. You hit your numbers, and basically no one cares where you are or what you’re doing.”
This, too, I believe.
If you’re a partner at a firm and cannot “hit your numbers” — preferably in terms of client origination but, at a minimum, in terms of sheer billable hours (because there’s enough internal demand to keep you sufficiently busy to stay off the “demote to income partner, relegate to of counsel, or discard from the firm” list) — then you’re in a heap of trouble.
On the other hand, if you can hit your numbers, you’re golden. You have a few theoretical bosses — a practice leader, the head of an office — but you work entirely independently of them. You can chat with them if you care to, or you can say that you’re too busy and will get back to them later. So long as you’re comfortably productive, no one will interfere.
Finally, my chum said that he (or she) “missed the entrepreneurial side of practice.”
Again, I’m convinced.
As a lawyer at a public company, you’re helping to support a large corporate structure, and you’re a backroom function. You’re not “client-facing,” as the business folks would say. At a law firm — even a large one — you are tending to your own practice (perhaps among many other things), and you’re trying to find new business both for yourself and your colleagues. If you have an entrepreneurial bent, law firm life may be more attractive than even a great in-house job at a big company.
That’s not to say that in-house life is anything to scoff at. There are plenty of advantages to working in-house, such as learning a business, thinking only strategically (and thus being lifted out of the muck of spats over e-discovery), and learning a collection of non-legal things that are typically invisible from a lawyer’s-eye view of the world. But there are two sides to every coin, and it’s worth thinking about my achates‘ tale. (What can I say? I ran out of synonyms for “friend,” searched an online thesaurus, and stumbled across Achates. Click through the link; it’ll be good for you.)
Many lawyers in firms would love to become the general counsel of a public company. But at least a few general counsel choose voluntarily to move in the other direction. There are surely lessons to be learned there.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.