Let’s take a step back from career moves and just look at the two main sectors of the legal field: firms and legal departments. We’ll dive into how law firms function differently from legal departments and the key factors and culture of each.
Law firms are comprehensive, functioning bodies, where each practice group serves as a department and the higher ups and decision makers are familiar with the firm’s culture and operations. Managing Partners have years of experience as attorneys and have worked their way up the corporate ladder. Firm culture values expertise, which is built into the structure of training and advancement. Young attorneys are expected to choose a practice area to focus on early in their career, usually within the first 2-3 years. They are often assigned a mentor and their work is passed up for review and feedback until their skills have been thoroughly refined. Firms put a strong focus on new technology, improving productivity and accessibility for their attorneys, and streamlining communication. Attorneys often put in long hours within the firm and improved technology has allowed for evening work to be done remotely. In summary, law firms make quality of work a high priority.
The main difference between working at an in-house legal department rather than a law firm is specialization. Legal departments are smaller and require attorneys to be versed in multiple types of law. Most have less than 10 attorneys who are knowledgeable on matters ranging from labor and employment to commercial transactions, tax law, and more. They work in conjunction with the public relations team, finance departments, investors, auditors, and management. Working alongside business operations in this way requires a very different way of practicing law, and it is starkly different from law firms. The structure of a legal department pushes attorneys to step outside of their main practice area, away from specialization and toward generalization.
It is a commonly known and accepted fact that the more you do something, the better you get….and vice versa. So, when an attorney with highly specialized skills stops focusing solely on the one aspect of law that they have dedicated their career to, their skills will deteriorate. This is a key reason that firms hesitate when it comes to hiring a candidate whose background is in-house. Lack of specialization for a high-level attorney with years of experience often leads to a poor transition into the firm environment and short-lived success. Another key difference between firms and legal departments are billing requirements. This has established the unfortunate truth that a background with in-house legal experience makes candidates less marketable to law firms.
This is not to say that the choice to move in house is a bad one. Each attorney must consider the best choice for their career, a decision that can only be made by oneself. Moving in-house is the right choice for many attorneys. Some are seeking a change from the strenuous firm culture, even though long hours are often still required in legal departments. Some are chasing the intersection of business and law, finding the perfect balance after moving in-house. Even more may struggle to choose one specific practice area and find freedom in the ability to broaden their interests.
This is just meant to caution attorneys that transitioning away from firm life is much easier than trying to go back.