This article is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee with inputs from Kuhu Shah.
The trend has been very noticeable in the last 5 years in the Indian legal industry. Successful law firm lawyers, especially senior associates, counsels and salaried partners who seem to have a decent future at the firm where they built most of their career, are shifting in-house in large numbers. What is driving this shift?
Ok, before I proceed with that, let me address the question you are asking. Why are we even talking about this? Is this a real thing? Or are we just claiming it out of thin air?
Alright, here is what VCcircle and Economic Times has to say on the subject. Even more important is perhaps this article which talks about the same trend in the USA over 25 years, written by David Wilkins, a professor at Harvard Law School who studies the legal profession.
In-house legal counsel positions have been steadily increasing in importance, pay grade and demand. A lot more people are now considering moving in-house. So we did some enquiries of our own and tried to discover the driving forces and what is motivating these young and successful lawyers to move in-house.
So here is what we discovered.
Law firm practice, being very specialised, may not ensure a learning curve
From the conversations we had, a lot of lawyers agreed that after working for 3-4 years in a law firm in the same team, they were doing the same work repeatedly for long hours. What was initially novel and intellectually stimulating, eventually became highly repetitive and mundane.
It seems the lawyers who love the business side of developing a law firm practice continues to grow in that direction, and derive satisfaction from growing a team and a business. The others may gradually lose interest in the work they are doing.
This is a juncture where such lawyers, often burnt out from overworking, look out for other options. And working as in-house counsel definitely provides a lucrative challenge, as one has to learn entirely new skills and handle a brand new set of challenges.
Moving to the client’s side of the business
When you work at a law firm, there are a lot of businesses that you serve as a lawyer. There are endless demands and compromises to be made. Once you shift in-house you go on to the client side.
Now you are the client, and you begin the instruct law firm lawyers. Lawyers do enjoy that!
Also, having a lot of experience of working as a law firm lawyer, you tend to have an advantage when you move in-house because you know what exactly is happening in a law firm. You know the chinks on the armour, and that gives you a certain advantage when you are trying to get work done.
For law firms, client satisfaction is a huge goal. Law firm lawyers bust their ass trying to keep the in-house lawyer happy! They do a lot of things that an in-house counsel will not be expected to do. I have been told by lawyers who moved from law firms to in-house that the work ethics and service minded attitude that law firm lawyers bring to in-house teams are always very appreciated.
A lot of lawyers who work at law firms, experience long working hours and a tedious life. It leaves little time for family, social life and recreation.
The general perception is that in-house jobs pay lesser than comparable law firm jobs. While that is not always true, what is certain is that work-life balance is known to be better in in-house legal departments. It is not a routine thing to pull all-nighters, and in many companies, one is expected to finish their work between 9 am to 5 pm and go home.
For a law firm lawyer, that is nothing short of a miracle and they are often ready to take a pay cut for the same, especially as they grow older and start a family. A lot of lawyers seek out in-house jobs for this reason.
Please don’t interpret this as in-house counsels do not have work, and they just chill. That is very, very far from the truth. However, it is also more likely that they will not push their lawyers to the verge of physical or mental illness to increase profitability or productivity. It’s just that the insane legal culture of all work and no play gets diluted in a company where all other executives expect to have a work-life balance.
Also, you may get to wear casual to the office on Friday and you are more likely to get all the usual corporate perks that law firms almost never offer.
Lawyers who do not want to take practice growth responsibilities may not be able to grow within firms
There are many very capable lawyers who do great work in law firms and climb up several steps to soon realise that it is not possible to grow further unless they can attract clients, build their own books and significantly contribute to the revenues and growth of the firm. This also means finding clients, networking, managing their expectations, building up a team that can deliver what you promise to the clients, training them, disciplining them and a whole lot of management that many lawyers are not very excited about doing.
Without doing these things, you can become a senior associate or even an associate partner if you start managing a team, but beyond that, you will not be progressing.
It makes logical sense to shift to an in-house role at this point as you can aspire to be a general counsel there. While you will not be able to avoid management work, at least you do not have to bring in the dough, meet targets or be responsible for financial losses! That makes a lot of great lawyers shift in-house.
When you fail to make partner
Making partner is a race. Not everyone wins. As the number of lawyers at the bottom has significantly increased, there are much fewer spots at the top to make partners. Fewer and fewer percentage of overall people who join entry-level jobs in law firms and stick on are going to make partners because the economic reality doesn’t allow all good lawyers to become partners with seniority.
You don’t want to remain an associate while your friends are making partner! If you are not going to make partner and you get that signal clearly, you may as well move in-house.
You get to be a more complete lawyer
A lot of lawyers in law firms get to work on a very narrow specialized area. Moving into a corporate in-house role gives them an opportunity to leverage their skill but increase their understanding of the practice of law, transactions and disputes in a more wholesome way.
You may say that until a law firm lawyers work in-house as well he hasn’t seen it all. Imagine how it challenging it is for an M&A lawyer with 5 years of M&A experienced to suddenly handle intellectual property disputes and labour law aspects of a company.
It is very challenging, but it also prepares you for bigger things in life.
Single client to deal with
When you are an in-house lawyer, there is just one client that you need to know. However, you have to know everything about it absolutely in-depth. You can give that one client more thought, mind space and dedication. You also get to see the business and organization evolving and get involved deeply. This can lead to some of the best work of your career that would not have been possible when you handled myriad clients who came and left.
In-house lawyers can speak their mind
Law firm lawyers don’t get to speak their mind. They need to be extremely diplomatic almost always. When they communicate with clients, they have to use many CYAs, limitations of liability and what not. Their advice is always qualified. It is not always the case that what is in the best interest of the clients is also in the best interest of the lawyer.
Additionally, law firm environment, especially in the bigger ones, can be hierarchical and stifling. Unless you are high enough in that hierarchy, your opinion often does not matter. With in-house lawyers, the situation is a bit better. While they are also trying to balance between various interests within the organization, they can and often need to speak frankly with stakeholders. Also, in-house legal departments are far more flat than most law firms!
Would you like to shift to in-house? We can help.
The challenging part of going in-house is the skill gap we discussed above. While it is intellectually stimulating and challenging, it also can be quite hard. Don’t be caught off guard, start with a bang!
We can help in that endeavour. Given the market, your top choice of industry for moving in-house will be one of the following high growth industries:
- Banking and Finance
- Technology (particularly fintech)
- Media and entertainment
- Manufacturing and FMCG
We have a host of courses that can make it easier for you. I am listing them below:
Executive Certificate Courses