Law firm or In-house?
The choice is a tough one to make. Most students know about law firms and the herd that follows them for internships and jobs. According to 2017 Livemint report, there are about 1.3 million registered companies in India. The number of law firms are definitely less than that, with only a handful firms employing a large number of lawyers like Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (CAM), Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas (SAM), Khaitan & Co. AZB & Partners, etc. Even if each registered company employs even one lawyer, then imagine the scope!
There is a huge disparity between the starting salaries of an in-house counsel and an associate in a law firm. The starting salary of an in house counsel, as per GlassDoor, can range from 4.5 to 10 Lakhs per annum depending on the company, whereas the big law firms can pay from 13 to 15 Lakhs per annum, as per a thoroughly researched article on this blog.
I had joined, a law firm straight out of college in Kolkata and was working for INR 15,000 per month! Just imagine, there was Khaitan & Co. right next door to me which was paying its associates multiple times over! It was frustrating to say the least. There were other firms paying 20,000 to 35,000 per month. I was struggling with the work at hand like all first year associates, but much poorer. No one tells you this about non-litigation careers. People spoke of the financial struggles in litigation, but not of the law firms.
For me the move to the in-house role was more financially motivated than anything else. It took me years to realise that the work involved, remuneration, etc. are pretty comparative to law firms. You can watch this webinar about the journey of an in-house counsel, where Mr. Surup Ray Chaudhuri, Corporate Director – Legal at the Taj Group has spoken about his struggles to find a decent in-house job right after law school and what it took to keep at the job!
So what should be your first job? Where do you learn more? Where is the scope of consistent growth or diversity? Which one is the better option?
There is no straight answer to this. I like the remuneration of law firms but the work-life balance is off. However, it is a myth that in-house lawyers have that although their work is more diversified. So which way does one go?
Your first job is a monumental step in your career. Although it does not define your resume in the long run, but it definitely shapes you as a lawyer. I was a clueless law student when it came to knowing the difference between taking a job in a law firm and in-house. But now, as a professional I have much more clarity.
So how do you decide which your first job should be?
# Area of Interest
The first and foremost reason to pick between the two, should be based on your area of interest. If you are interested in mergers and acquisition, then a law firm with this focus area of work will be more suited for you. All the big law firms have an entire vertical dedicated to this. If you’re interested in say media and entertainment law, then an in-house role might be more suited.
So first figure out which area of law interests you the most.
The interest also varies in the nature of the work. An in-house counsel has to advise and work on a varied topics to different teams. This requires sufficient knowledge in a laws related to contracts law, technology law, intellectual property law, real estate laws, etc. They have to advise the management as well as the other departments like sales, marketing, accounts , etc. You can check out this comprehensive business law course, to enhance your knowledge base and learn the necessary laws and their practical application. To know more about the life of an in-house lawyer read this article. They have to make reports, presentations, maintain various databases to monitor the ongoing work, etc.
Whereas law firms, although deal with similar work profile, it is more focused on a field of law. So whether you’re interested in IP law or M&A law or commercial laws, you will be specialising in that area of law. To know more about how to work your way into a law firm, read this article. So you will be drafting contracts, dealing with clients, advising them, strategizing the best suited deal for your client, giving them the clear limitation of any transaction.
# Work Profile
The work of in a law firm and an in-house are similar in many ways. There are drafting of contracts, negotiation, due diligence, document review, liaison with third parties, dispute resolution, etc.
But then there are tasks specific to law firms and in-house counsel. You can read more about the specific work functions of a law firm and an-house counsel here. The pertinent thing to remember is that even the in-house counsels go to the law firms when necessary and not the other way around.
In the initial years, it takes a while to adjust to the assigned work at law firms, as they are quite challenging. There are longer hours, volumes of work, lack of intermittent feedback,etc., which adds to the pressure. These are struggles faced by corporate lawyers in the initial years. How do you figure out if you’re cut out for this job? Plan your internships according to your interest and intern with the firm of your choice multiple times to see if you can take the grind. That is the easiest way.
The simplest way to describe the difference between the two is that an in-house counsel has to be jack of all trades and an associate is more of master of one or two. As an in -house counsel, I had to advise on day-to-day functions of the company along with troubleshooting the possible problems. Once a third party had sent notice to an international client of ours for copyright infringement. We not only had to quickly step up to protect us and our claim, but to pacify the client that they are safeguarded as well. We had to keep our clients abreast of every small development, till the dispute was resolved. The in-house counsel has to work not only on the legal issues, but maintain the business relations smoother as well.
# Scope of Growth
The fact remains that there is a clear trajectory of growth in both law firms and in-house jobs. The remuneration plays a key role in the decision between the two jobs. But the payment gap between the top firms and the small firms is huge.
The scope of learning is said to be more in a small firm as there are fewer team members compared to the big firm. It is an all hands on deck situation, which requires the optimal utilisation of even the associates. So if you’re a fresher looking to build a brand, it is your call to go to brand name firm or learn multitude of work in a smaller one, and let that be your calling card. Remember, if you know your craft, remuneration will soon follow. But if you spend your time unsuitably, then you risk the long game for short-term gain. So choose wisely.
For in-house lawyers there is the scope of changing industries from a telecom company to a start-up or a media company. They can also join law firms in future. Whereas, an M&A lawyer can move to different law firms with same practice or join a company for such specific transactional role.
The point is that both the jobs have a great trajectory, although initially the in-house job might seem financially less lucrative, with the right skills and company, it does not go to a waste.
I started at a law firm, but I really learnt at the in-house jobs. Some of my friends are enjoying working at both law firms and in in-house roles. Don’t go into a company for the comfortable timings, for that is a myth. An in-house counsel is at call with multiple teams and not just the legal. They have to troubleshoot the issues coming from different directions. This job requires multitasking in the literal sense.
Similarly, law firms are not for the weak-hearted. You need to invest a lot of time and energy to learn the work and improve. There is no hand-holding guidance available. So you have to figure out things on your own and seek out help whenever necessary.
So if you’re a troubleshooter who can don multiple hats, in-house job is for you. If you’re focused, diligent, and self-motivated person who can handle whatever is thrown at them, give law firm a chance.
I started with much less experience and had to learn on the go. So if I can say with certainty it is this – work where you can learn the most and develop your skills. Money will surely follow soon enough. But learning your craft is a sure shot way towards that goal. You can learn business laws, contract drafting, media laws, company laws, M&A laws and more.
Be a jack of all trades or a master of one, but make sure you’re bloody good at it, whatever your choose.