“If you go in-house, you’ll never go back to a law firm, and your career will be stuck in a dead end.” That kind of advice is peppered all over the Internet. And it’s propagated by headhunters, of course, with good reason: they have a vested interest in lawyers staying in firms, playing musical chairs every few years, and collecting a placement fee. But this hasn’t been my experience at all through my six-plus years working in-house at two of the world’s largest and best-known companies in their respective industries.
In my first in-house job, almost everyone who left returned to a law firm – and usually in a more senior position than when they had left (former associates returned as counsel, counsel returned as partners, etc.) I think it helped that this company was extremely well-known in a relatively niche, but large, industry that has a significant number of outside law firms dedicated to its field. But at the same time, all of us in-house lawyers at the company developed strong relationships with those outside law firms and there was always a sense that the door was open if any of us wanted to return. And some of us did.
At my other in-house job, the company was a bit more prestigious and well-known, and hired a lot of junior associates out of Biglaw practices on the coasts. Many of the new hires didn’t stick for more than a couple of years (myself included) for one reason or another, and virtually everyone who left (except me – I returned to a different position in the other company) either want back to their original law firm or took a position with a smaller law firm. (And many, many lawyers went on to other in-house positions or business roles within the company – more on that in a future post.)
In thinking more about this issue as I write this, I think the point is that your career – legal or otherwise – is what you make of it. Going in-house can be a terrific career move if you enjoy the industry you’ll be working in, and you would also consider an opportunity in a non-legal or a quasi-legal role if you are unable to move up in the legal department. And based on my experience law firms value the business-focused expertise and experience that you will develop in the trenches working with the business teams you support – especially if that firm has a practice area dedicated to your company’s industry or you decide to return to a boutique law firm that practices in that industry.
What do you think?