Practising at an elite law firm is often viewed, with good reason, as the pinnacle of the legal profession. For some, it is the realisation of their professional dreams, offering lucrative income, exposure to the highest value work, and a heavy dose of prestige. But, as anyone in legal recruitment will tell you, plenty of others are wondering where it all went wrong. The pressure of billable hours’ targets and the impact that has on work-life balance, combined with fierce competition for the increasingly distant carrot of partnership, lead many to wonder whether the grass is greener elsewhere, and more specifically, in-house. We would urge a little caution.
Let’s be clear from the outset, there are some really great in-house legal jobs out there. Active participation in the business allows you to see the impact of your advice in a commercial as well as a technical legal context. The work is varied, fast-paced and often more hands-on than you might get in ‘Big Law’, and in the right organisation, you may not even need to compromise on prestige.
For GC’s at the top-end of the in-house legal world, seats on the board and attractive salaries with exceptional benefits are commonplace. Less commonplace, is the opportunity to take on one of these senior level roles. In-house legal teams are structured like pyramids. Mid-sized corporates might have a Global GC and a small number of regional GC’s; larger companies might have unit GC’s responsible for a particular sector within the business. But very few will have enough senior level roles for most lawyers in the large teams they manage to have any realistic expectations to step up.
If we advertise a role for a GC or any ‘Head of’ role for a decent company, we are liable to have in excess of 100 applications in just a few days. And not weak applications either; applications from lawyers already at that level who are ready for a change; applications from the leading ‘up and coming’ in-house experts seeking a step up; applications from senior in-house lawyers with great credentials who have found themselves on the market following a merger and resultant consolidation. The point is, if you think the race for partnership is ‘dog eat dog’, you’ve seen nothing yet! There is no fixed number of partners – if you are good enough, it will happen somewhere. There is only one General Counsel in a company, if they are going nowhere, it matters little how capable you are.
So what should you take from this if you are a junior/mid-level lawyer considering an in-house move? We are not suggesting you don’t, but be aware of the drawbacks and go into it with your eyes open. Once you are in place, make a point of regularly assessing your future options and how best to position yourself, ensuring that you can see a viable next step (and even the one after that). If you don’t, by the time you realise you have hit the ceiling, it might just be too late to do anything about it.
If you are a City lawyer looking for positive alternatives to your current role, contact Jason Horobin at Origin Legal. We have expertise in advising on a multitude of ‘escape routes’, from high-end boutiques to offshore and international moves, and from leading regional law firms to in-house roles.