In 1983, when I graduated from law school, essentially no one wanted in-house legal jobs, and people who worked in-house weren’t held in very high regard.
To the contrary: With few exceptions, in-house lawyers were viewed as failures. These were the folks who couldn’t succeed at real jobs. People went in-house because law firms wouldn’t have them; jobs with short hours, low pay, no challenging assignments, and no stress were the only available alternative.
That was not simply my narrow-minded perspective. It was the widely shared belief of generations of lawyers who came of age in the law before about 1990. I recently had a drink with the general counsel of a Fortune 250 company, and he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) told me that he could never be a success in his father’s eyes: “My father was a partner at a major law firm. He was pleased with me when I clerked for a federal appellate judge, took a fancy government job, and later became a partner at a big firm. But then I went in-house, and he lost all respect for me. He wanted me to ‘succeed’ in the law — to try high-profile cases and argue important appeals. When I went in-house, he quickly decided that I was a failure, and there was never any chance that he’d change his mind.”
Although that’s a sad story, I’m pleased to report that, at least in the context of in-house legal jobs, Bob Dylan had it right: “The times they are a-changin’ . . . ”
I personally noticed the change in the late 1980s, when Ben Heineman — former Rhodes Scholar, Supreme Court clerk, and managing partner of the Washington office of Sidley & Austin — chose to give up his “real” job to go in-house, as general counsel of GE.
What was up with that? The guy had succeeded. He was highly perfumed. He had endless opportunities. And he chose to throw it all away by heading to a backwater job as an in-house lawyer? Was he nuts?
But the word on the street was that Heineman had told the senior executives at GE that he wanted to be able to hire “real” lawyers to join him in-house. He insisted on being able to offer compensation that was competitive with the big firms, so that good lawyers would consider changing their career paths. And many did. When I met Brackett Deniston (then the head of litigation at GE, who hired my then-firm to defend a class action), it was plain that he, too, had serious career choices. Like Heineman, Deniston had done a fancy clerkship, held a significant government job, and been a partner at a major firm. And, like Heineman, he’d decided to go in-house. This was odd.
It ain’t so odd any more.
Legal publications now regularly report that well-respected senior partners at major firms are resigning their partnerships to take in-house jobs. (Within just the last few weeks, for example, the world read that Susan Levy, formerly managing partner of Jenner & Block, resigned to become the general counsel of Northern Trust.) And the press reports only scratch the surface of what’s happening.
As I’ve written before, my gig at Above the Law transformed me into the shoulder upon which unhappy partners at major firms now cry, trying to replicate my journey from big-firm partner to in-house lawyer. Some of my weeping acquaintances have generated little business and are thus under extraordinary pressure at their firms. Some generate respectable amounts of business but are unhappy that their formerly collegial law firms have become increasingly cutthroat over the decades. Some of my correspondents have business now but fear that they may not continue to have business for years in the future, and they fear that their firms will throw them under the bus as soon as my correspondents lose a step. Some are unhappy because, as they came closer to the pinnacles of their firms, they saw more vividly the elbows that were being thrown by those near the top, and my correspondent-partners no longer care to play the game.
Others want to escape from law firms for different reasons: They’re tired of the fray. They want to slow down a step. They’ve heard that in-house life is easier.
Still others call me not to weep, but to explore new horizons. Many of these folks have different — arguably, more noble — motivations for wanting to move in-house: They’re transactional lawyers interested in seeing deals from their earliest days, instead of being brought in mid-deal to finalize transactions that had already been percolating for weeks or months. Or lawyers are interested in seeing many matters from a more strategic perspective, rather than fewer matters from within the weeds. Or lawyers want to work regularly, rather than intermittently, with a business. Or they’ve done everything one can do at a law firm and want to try something new. Whatever.
But an extraordinary number of people are now willing — or itching — to make the move from successful careers at law firms to in-house jobs.
What a shame the father of my general-counsel buddy never walked a few miles in the shoes of an in-house lawyer today. The GC’s dad would quickly have realized that his son was not necessarily a failure for having chosen to walk a different path. To the contrary, many distinguished lawyers today view moving in-house as a great step up and view serving as the general counsel of a Fortune 250 company as having achieved the ultimate career success.
Sadly (at least for my GC-buddy), the conventional wisdom dies hard, particularly for lawyers of an earlier generation, who barely recognize today’s legal world.
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.