In-house vs. Private Practice: Is the Grass Always Greener? (Part I)
As legal recruiters, working with both law firms and in-house positions, we routinely have attorneys tell us they want to move in-house. Changing to an in-house role, which is most often the course of action, can be an excellent career choice for some, but only for the right person and the right position.
There are myriad differences between working in-house and in private practice to consider, and attorneys should prioritize what is most important to them when contemplating a career decision of this magnitude. COMPENSATION Law Firm: While attorneys in more junior positions, whether private practice or in-house, tend to earn similar salaries, as individuals become more seasoned, those who work in private practice generally have significantly greater earning potential. In-house: In most instances, in-house counsel positions are a “cost center”, not a revenue generator and this is reflected in compensation. Salary scales vary depending on many factors, including the company’s sector, size, and profitability. Generally speaking, however, the pay is less, and the growth is slower, than at a firm. SCOPE OF WORK Law Firm: Most private practice attorneys specialize and become experts in their field. If attorneys decide to switch their practice area, they often experience a drop in salary. Moreover, the later in their career this is done, the more difficult it is to achieve. In-house: Depending on the nature and scale of the business, in-house lawyers often develop expertise in various areas, dealing with a broad range of general, commercial legal issues. Beyond that which is strictly legal, in-house attorneys’ work often includes participation in other aspects of the business and collaborating with company stakeholders. CAREER ADVANCEMENT Law Firm: Typically, there is a well-defined path to career progression within firms, which, for many, includes building a practice and becoming a Partner. Depending upon the firm, reaching the pinnacle of partnership is achieved differently, but as a rule, the opportunity is there and can be extremely lucrative for those with larger books of business. In-house: There are substantially fewer roles in-house, which frequently results in heightened competition for higher-level positions. Often, the legal department track is not positioned to achieve senior corporate management, so upward movement and/or becoming General Counsel may prove more complicated and uncertain than firm partnership. This is particularly the case within companies, where subjective factors and timing can play a greater role in career advancement.