Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Is It More Stressful To Work In-House Than At A Law Firm?

Job stress is a big deal. It’s not just that it makes you feel constantly anxious and irritable and more likely to get involved in shouting matches — and that’s just with your alarm clock. Occupational stress impacts our overall well-being. For example, it increases marital strife and has also been more strongly associated with health issues than financial or family problems.

One way to avoid job stress is to avoid having a job. I know this may sound like a tempting alternative, but I’ve tried this at one point and found that it wasn’t an ideal option. Because when not working means that your hubby nags you every other minute to get your butt off the couch and clean off the month-old Cheetos stuck between your teeth, it’s still pretty stressful.

So assuming we’re forced to follow the conventional, non-lazy route, which is the better option from a stress perspective — working in-house or at a law firm? Well, it depends. Sorry, I know that it’s one of those typical, boring, hedgy responses that lawyers like to give every time they’re confronted with a question, but there really isn’t a more appropriate response….

Because people are different. I mean, seriously, we each have different personalities and therefore freak out about all kinds of different things. You may be a born salesman who enjoys the thrill of seeking out new clients. I may hate people. You may say to-may-to. I may say why the heck are we suddenly talking about vegetables??

You may want (or need (or think that you need)) to make a lot of money. Or you may be lucky enough to not have to worry that much about your finances (if you’re in this category — shoot me an email — let’s be friends!). You may be ambitious with big, fancy goals of being a U.S. attorney general or Supreme Court justice someday. Others of you aren’t even sure how you ended up going to law school in the first place.

And working environments are different. There are small, mid-sized, and large law firms. The same with companies. They can be located in major cities or hick towns. Some are casual and some are uptight. You could be working at a small but sophisticated hedge fund, a giant conglomerate, or a start-up that’s trying to make a dent in the market. You could be the lowest kid on the totem pole or the head honcho. Your job may involve continual international travel or just a daily 10-minute commute.

In spite of all of these differing factors that contribute to more or less workplace stress, what if we still want to try to answer the question? Let’s assume the fiction that you’re a completely average person working as the average lawyer at an average law firm or company in the average city and in an average industry. What are some of the major occupational stress factors for you? (On average?)

One obvious source of law firm stress is your billable hours requirement. Your billables not only influence your year-end bonus, but your overall job security as well. So you’re incentivized to bill lots of hours, but billing lots of hours also means… well, you’re spending lots of hours at work. Boo. And generally the busier you are, the more stressed you are, without personal or family downtime. It’s really a question of which type of stress is worse — not billing enough or billing enough.

For many law firm lawyers, looking for clients and keeping them happy is stressful. Unless you’ve found divine favor with a rainmaker partner who’s about to retire, you’re constantly trying to figure out how to meet people and convince them without coming on too strong (or too weak) that they should hire you for any and every legal need they can possibly think of. And recommend you to their friends. To do this, you need to strategize and utilize soft skills – stuff that law school never taught you and by the time you realize it, it’s pretty late.

Let’s switch over to the in-house world. These lawyers are usually working in a “faced-paced” environment, which means that they’re juggling numerous matters at once. For most in-house lawyers I know, 20-30 different matters is the norm. A lot of these are fire drills, last-minute issues, or otherwise have super-short deadlines. It’s a perfect environment for someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. Business clients don’t get billed for in-house legal time, so they have few qualms about reaching out to their company lawyers, even for matters that aren’t legal issues.

Working at a company involves more complex and potentially stressful office politics and relationships, just because you work with so many different people. This means many more individuals whom you may unintentionally upset. And if you aren’t fond of a particular colleague, unlike at a firm where you can often avoid working with them, at a company you’ll probably need to interact and collaborate with them on an ongoing basis.

Hours can be an issue in-house too. Although most in-house counsel aren’t working crazy hours like large law firm lawyers are, I rarely meet in-house lawyers who work the mystical 9 to 5 day. Also, if you want to move up in the company and gain increasing responsibilities, it usually means more and more hours. The top lawyers at a company often do work as much or more than many large law firm lawyers.

So determining whether an in-house job or a law firm job is more stressful really depends on the type of environment you’re in, your responsibilities, your personality type, what you’re looking for in life, etc. I personally have had moments in-house when my stress levels were similar to or worse than much of the time I spent in Biglaw due to a couple of years of unusually long, “fast-paced” hours.

Every job situation is obviously going to involve some basic level of stress, at least if you’re working as a lawyer. In my next post, I’ll write about one way that a lawyer is trying to help other lawyers re-wire their brains to better deal with stress and otherwise improve their well-being. It’s called “mindfulness” and promises all sorts of wonderful things like how we can all be happier, better at our jobs, and fabulously wealthy. Oh wait, scratch that last one. Stay tuned!


Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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