Like many new graduates, my first job out of law school was at a law firm as an associate. I shadowed partners, learned how to actually practice law, and developed some skills for handling a wide variety of clients with legal problems. I also learned that in most law firms, mastering the fine art of tracking the billable hour was a top priority. It became ingrained in me to report everything I did throughout a day in six-minute increments. I was learning a lot and enjoying my chosen career, but had a nagging feeling that there might be a better place for me to practice law.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to join a large corporation as an in-house counsel litigator. I jumped at the chance, and over a decade later, have never regretted my decision. I am one of the lucky few among my law school classmates who isn’t unhappy or disillusioned with the practice of law. Being in-house has led to a fulfilling and interesting career. Here are just a few of the reasons being in-house is a good choice for me, and might be for you too.
The focus is on the company and clients, not billable hours
In private practice, bringing in clients, and later billing those clients, is important. Law firm life often operates under the “eat what you kill” model (i.e., no matter how good your skills are, your salary and career path will in large part be measured by the money you bring into the firm).
As an in-house attorney, however, I’m able to spend my time actually lawyering versus capturing my time to bill. I’m focused on solving the company’s, and my client’s, legal problems. That means I have the freedom to think creatively about resolving issues, without worrying about billing that time. There is no incentive to undertake unnecessary discovery or to file unnecessary motions that aren’t designed to advance my client’s best interests.
Work-life balance is more attainable
In-house, I have more control of my schedule. Yes, there are times when I have worked at home in the evenings or over weekends preparing for trial or catching up on work. Being a lawyer is admittedly not a 9-to-5 job pretty much no matter where you work. Some in-house attorneys may find that overall, they work just as many hours as their private practice peers. The advantage, however, is that legal departments in corporations are often far less hierarchical than a traditional law firm. There are no partners to dump work on me last minute or send me out of town for expert depositions with little notice. I have found that being in-house, I can better control my caseload and the hours I spend working. The last-minute client emergencies that pop up after hours or on a Friday afternoon are virtually unheard of in my position.
The career path may be more interesting
In a law firm, there are typically only a few different positions—associate, partner, and counsel. Career progression is typically on a linear path, and partnership is never guaranteed. At a company, and particularly a large one, there are a number of different options for those with a legal background.
I have taken on various management positions at my company, which is an experience I likely wouldn’t have gotten in private practice. At many companies, there are also different practice areas within a legal department, and opportunity to move between them. There’s also the ability to move outside the legal group into a business area and take on a non-legal or executive position on the business side. Being in-house provides options for a more varied career path, either focused on the practice of law, or using your law degree toward a career in business.
While in-house isn’t the answer for everyone, it’s certainly an option to consider, especially if you’re a few years out of law school with some experience under your belt. Most in-house legal departments have very little turnover, and for good reason: they provide the ability to practice law without the frustration and exhaustion that accompanies the private practice.
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Stacie Baker works in Progressive’s House Counsel organization, managing our Ohio offices. She has more than 20 years of legal experience.