Today, I am thinking about clichés that I grew up hearing and saying. “Why are you thinking about clichés?” you may ask. “Well,” I might say. “I just read an article about compensation trends for in-house corporate counsel and 5 out of the 5 trends are described perfectly with common clichés.” I mean, come on, the trends in compensation were as plain as the nose on my face. I found myself reading the article and saying, “Duh!” and “It’s about time!” over and over. When you read A Little Something to Sink Your Teeth Into: Cliché Overload, you’ll soon realize that someone paid truckloads of money to find out information that we already know… been there done that.
If you work in a law firm, look around you. Would you say that 86% of your peers were satisfied with their work? If you worked as in house counsel for a corporation the answer to that question would be a resounding ”YES!”
You have to be asking, “What are in-house lawyers doing that’s so satisfying?” The answer is a lot. The typical day of an in-house lawyer might find them doing a variety of law from compliance to employment law to intellectual property law. “So what else?” you may ask. In-house lawyers feel connected to their work. They see, experience, and feel the fruits of their labor first hand.
Are you in the dissatisfied category? Check out the article entitled “The Rolling Stones Were Wrong…We Can Get Satisfaction” for some satisfying suggestions.
Let’s take a step back in time. For some of you, it might be a very large step. You’re in your 3rd grade classroom, in your little desk made of grey metal with a faux wood desktop with a pencil holder at the top, book cubby in the bottom. You may be sitting in the front row or behind a piggy-tailed little girl or, perhaps, a stripe-shirted little boy. Your teacher asks who wants to read their story to the class. You are eager to share your story and your hand shoots up. You look around the room and see your friends with their hands in the air. You lean to your side and press your hand as high as it will go and before you can stop yourself, you’re grunting with a “pick-me” grunt. You’re waiting for what seems like an eternity, and then you watch in slow motion as your teacher picks…
This schoolroom situation describes the job market for many attorneys looking to move in-house as a general counsel. As a matter of fact, in-house general counsel jobs make up approximately 10% of the current legal job market and receive roughly 20% of all applicants. It would be great if these percentages would align, but it doesn’t look like trends will be in that favor. So, what’s an attorney looking to move in-house supposed to do?
First, get yourself an excellent attorney recruiter who understands the current job market, future job trends, and comes highly recommended. Call other attorneys and read your legal magazines to locate a good recruiter. If you can find a friend or a friend of a friend who’s had an excellent experience with a recruiter, dig in and find out the details.
Second, get your story sparkly, that is to say get your general counsel resume ready. Before you dust off the old resume, it’s important to have two basic understandings: 1. Your resume will be scrutinized closer than you expect. 2. Your claims will be checked more thoroughly than you expect. All this equals: TELL THE TRUTH! Some of you may be thinking that if you don’t “spice-up” your resume, then you’ll look boring and unmentionable and that the teacher will never pick you. According to trends in the general counsel market, having a varied and non-specific resume may increase your chances. In the case of the small corporation, they may need you to be a peddler of many tasks and the master of none.
Another way to get picked by the teacher to read your story, er… um, selected as in-house general counsel is to be very specific when you describe your experience. Don’t just mention that you handled data with your previous firm. Go deep. Mention that you handled cloud-based data preservation and violation. Don’t mention that you handled financial transactions. Tell them whether you handled proxies, filings, or securities. Your resume IS the place where your story should come to life, and no story comes to life without excellent details. Forget the out-dated notion that your resume needs to be one page. It doesn’t need to be five pages either. Use your words wisely. The last word on resumes is this: one resume does not fit all. Taylor your resume to the job you are seeking.
Finally, your cover letter should be minimal. Something like this: Hey, I’m qualified, pay close attention to this experience, Boom! Let your resume do your story telling. Just think of this as one big exercise in getting the teacher to let you read your story in front of the class. Maybe, just maybe, that cute 3rd grader you’ve had your eye on will notice you now.
Have we come a long way baby? When it comes to female lawyers at law firms, the answers may be a resounding no. While women represent approximately 45% of associates, the only represent 20% of partners.
Vault took a look back at its most recent Associate Survey, in which nearly 17,000 associates at law firms from across the country rated their firms in areas such as satisfaction, hours, compensation, diversity, and associate/partner relations. And in nearly all of these areas, women rated their firms lower than did men. While that’s not new, what is interesting is that the same issues that have plagued women’s careers over the last few decades endure:
First, many female associates feel that it is impossible to have a family and make partner—and so they take themselves off the partnership track, even before they have children.
If that’s true, so what can firms do about it? How many progressive law firms offer on-site childcare or reduced hours with the opportunity to make partner? Not many. At the end of the day, it’s about billing a lot of hours and bringing business to the firm, and if you have other responsibilities, such as child rearing, and don’t want to have a partner or third parties to do it for you, the chances of making partner are slim to none. Unless firms change the rules of the game, the choices for women will be the same.
Second, female associates complain that their male counterparts have different—and better—opportunities for business development, important assignments and mentorship.
Is this a case where men prefer other men in terms of providing assignments, either consciously or subconsciously? Could this be related to the fact that women are not perceived as available or motivated to become partner? Given that a majority of women are leaving before partnership there is some truth to that assumption, and this could be a catch-22 issue. Would women partners be more likely to provide other women more opportunities? That’s not necessarily true. Perhaps this is a case where women may have to be more proactive and actively seek opportunities, rather than wait for them to be assigned.
Finally, a common complaint among senior women associates is that their potential for making partnership is not clear enough.
That gripe is equally true when it comes to men. What it takes to make partner at major law firms is as clear as mud, whether you are a man or a woman. However, the fact that men represent 80% of partners may means that the message is not necessarily what is making the difference. At the end of the day, you have to stand out. To do that, you have to work on the big transactions and litigation, put in the hours, and bring in the clientele. There is no one way to do it, and firms are not keen to give its associates clear directions on how to make it, simply because there isn’t a whole lot of room at the top.
While law firms have been creating more innovative and far-reaching programs and policies, the rub is in the lack of action. The numbers speak for themselves. The good news is that these are issues that are being talked about, but the bad news is that old stigmas, gender assumptions, and business practices endure.
As more in-house lawyers question the billable hour and continue to lean towards value-based alternative fee arrangements (VBFs), law firms are quick to counter that the economy is picking and that discounted fees may be nearing an end.
Who will win this tug of war? The economy may be the deciding factor.
A new study has some good news and some bad news for both law firms and in-house legal departments. The economy is on the rebound. The pace of claims for unemployment insurance continues to be the lowest since January 2008, and housing Rose 0.8 percent in February.
Confidence is also up. According to an article by Corporate Counsel, Managing partners’ overall confidence in the economy was up 18 points between the third and fourth quarters of 2012, and 85 percent predicted future revenue growth, according to the latest Law Watch Managing Partner Confidence Index survey from Citi Private Bank.
However, while we may no longer be in a recession, the economy still hasn’t really recovered. According to an article by the Washington Post, some 12 million Americans are still looking for work, and many millions more would confirm that it hasn’t felt like a recovery at all. That would include the people who have seen their incomes flatline or have been drowning in mortgage debt for years on end.
This is not just a feeling, but reality supported by hard data. According to the Post, since the start of 2010, growth has averaged 2.2 percent, which would be just fine in normal times, but is lousy considering the starting point was a time of mass unemployment and general economic despair.
In-house legal department are weary of the future and continue to be conservative with spending. As a result, large companies with leverage have been negotiating their way into discounted legal fees. Case in point, GlaxoSmithKline increased its use of VBFs from 3 percent to 68 percent; United Technologies Corporation’s use of VBFs is more than 70 percent; Home Depot, more than 75 percent; and Pfizer is 100 percent VBF according to Corporate Counsel.
In general, law firm managing partners are concerned that clients will continue to push for discounted fees. And they should be. Unless the economy begins to show stronger signs of a recovery, in-house legal department will likely continue to push and receive discounted fees.
It looks like in the midst of immigration reform by the Obama administration,things may be looking up for foreign lawyers. Under a resolution approved on Monday by the ABA House of Delegates, foreign lawyers will have limited authority to serve as in-house counsel in the United States.
Resolution 107A is among a series of proposed amendments to the ABA model ethics rules that acknowledge the globalization of law practice. It amends Rule 5.5(d) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct concerning unauthorized practice and multijurisdictional practice. The amendment states that foreign lawyers may work as in-house counsel in the United States, but they may not give advice on U.S. law unless it is based on the advice of a lawyer who is licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction. A related resolution, 107B, requires registration for foreign lawyers working as in-house counsel.
Seven states already expressly permit foreign lawyers to work as in-house lawyers in the U.S. offices of their clients. This will likely open the gates to foreign lawyers looking to practice in the U.S. But how does that bode with our current economic climate? The legal market has yet to bounce back, and employment numbers are still low. With thousands of U.S. lawyer unemployed and many more U.S. law graduates still seeking employment, how will this impact our market? The answer remains to be seen.
The road to partnership has become more arduous and the attrition rate at law firms is at an all-time high − 80% of lawyers are leaving large law firms by their 5th year.At the top of the list of complaints are business-development demands − not to mention billable hours and the collection pressures of junior partnership. As a result, many attorneys are prompted to re-examine their career path midway.
The good news is that switching jobs mid-career may be easier than for attorneys in other demographics. Partly due to the high attrition rate, attorneys with more than 5 years of experience are in high demand in law firms. This is also the benchmark experience level usually required by in-house legal departments. Experienced attorneys have a variety of career alternatives available (see our previous blog, Why Are Unhappy Lawyers Hesitant to Leave the Practice?).
The key; however, is to make that career re-assessment at the right time. Made too early, the opportunities tend to be either too few or too limiting to be appealing. Made too late, after 10 years of practice, the opportunities tend to not only be more limited, but also less financially attractive. The ideal time for attorneys to make the transition falls within the 5-10 year window. This is a small window of opportunity that leaves little time for procrastination...Have you re-assessed your career lately?
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a law firm associate tell me “I want to go in-house,” I would be enjoying my retirement on a tropical island in the South Pacific. The allure of taking one’s practice in-house is understandable, and in many cases, quite appropriate.The opportunity to take an active role in a client's business decisions, to focus on the growth of one client and one industry, to part with billable hour requirements and business development responsibilities, and operate within a more predictable and sometimes less taxing schedule, are all very compelling reasons to make that transition. But how do you know whether you are ready to make the move in-house?
There is a notable difference in wanting to go in-house and being ready to go in-house. No matter how enticing the opportunity might turn out to be; unless you are truly ready for it, it might not be the successful transition you were hoping for. How do you know whether you are ready? Here are some questions to consider in determining whether you are ready to make that leap in-house:
Do You Have the Experience?
When you consider that 75% of associates leave private practice by their fifth year of practice (NALP 2005), it is not surprising to see a number of junior associates banging on corporate doors to transition in-house. Obviously most in-house job postings will include the minimum level of experience required for the position – but is meeting the minimum requirement enough? Not necessarily.
Companies that hire in-house counsels are looking for attorneys who are self-sufficient, who can work independently, with little support, and almost no supervision. Sounds like an ideal proposition? Yes, but consider the following: this also means that corporate legal departments are not good training grounds either. This is not a place where you will be taught skills, or have much of an opportunity to learn from more senior counsel. It will be assumed that you are already skilled in your practice area, can handle all of the documentation and processes that come with it, can provide strategic advice to your company, and can oversee the legal work of potentially more experienced outside counsels.
In light of what companies expect from their attorneys, it is recommended that you stay in private practice for at least five (5) years before you consider making a transition in-house. While the level of responsibility and training tends to vary on an individual basis, and from firm to firm; this minimum threshold can at least ensure that you have had the opportunity to be exposed to the various documentation and processes of your practice area.
While law firms continue to have a dubious reputation in terms of the quality of their training, they remain the best place for junior attorneys to acquire experience and develop legal skills. Corporate legal departments for the most parts are thinly staffed, and therefore provide you with more limited access to experienced counsels (and sometimes no access whatsoever) to whom you could go for support or advice. And remember, if you are thinking about picking up the phone to call an outside counsel to get advice, it will cost you and your company. Corporate legal departments operate under strict budgets – they do not provide for this type of on-the-job training. Corporate legal departments also tend to work with fewer resources, in terms of libraries, software programs, continuing legal education programs etc. Finally, the work you will be required to handle in-house, will demand that you not only be able to draft, revise, and negotiate or explain the various documents associated with the transaction or litigation matter, but that you take it a step further and advise your client on what strategy and steps they need to take to meet their business objectives.
The longer you stay in private practice, the more valuable you will become to a company, and the more likely you will be able to succeed in-house. The best time to transition your practice in-house is generally between your fifth year and tenth year of practice, or right before partnership. Why before partnership? Because by the time you make it to partnership, you may have become either too expensive, or too dependent on your high compensation package, to be able or ready to absorb the salary cut you will need to take when moving in-house.
Are You Ready for a Salary Cut?
When speaking with attorneys who are ready to make that in-house transition, I invariably hear the same message, “I am ready to take a salary cut for the right opportunity.” They seem candid and honest about their willingness to give up a portion of their law firm compensation to move in-house, and they generally are. However, very few tend to understand just how much of it they will have to give up to make that move. That’s understandable; where law firms make their compensation public knowledge and generally align themselves in terms of their size and geographical locations, corporate legal departments are not only more guarded about their figures, but are also much more unpredictable – as compensation can vary greatly depending on a company’s size, industry, location, and financial situation.
The only in-house figures that seem to gather the attention of the press, and therefore those that are readily available to the general public are the compensation figures of Fortune 500 general counsels. In fact, those figures are typically those of the 100 highest-paid general counsels at Fortune 500 companies. In 2006, the average cash bonus and restricted stock grant received by this group approached $2 million. In addition, more than half of the group cashed in stock options in 2005, with an average gain of $3.1 million. In comparison, the average profit taken home last year by an Am Law 100(R) partner at the nation's 100 top-grossing firms was $1.1 million.
Top earners like Thomas Russo, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.'s vice-chairman and chief legal officer, takes home a whopping $21.2 million, with $450,000 in salary, $4.6 million in bonus, and $16 million in stock option cash-ins. Occidental Petroleum Corporation's Donald de Brier received nearly $7.2 million in stock options in fiscal year 2005, while MGM Mirage's Gary Jacobs got a sweet $5.5 million in options.
While not everyone has the grandiose ambition or the profile to become a Fortune 500 general counsel – these figures have a tendency to skew the expectations of attorneys wanting to make the jump from law firms to corporate legal departments. Most law firm attorneys expect to take a 20-30% cut from their law firm compensation, while the reality is that most law firm attorneys transitioning in-house experience compensation reductions ranging between 50%-70%. The median base salaries for in-house attorneys with 5-10 years of experience ranges between $100,000-$150,000 per year, with bonuses averaging 20%-30% of base.
Most attorneys who hear these figures gripe, “It’s not market.” It’s easy to understand why. The salary wars waged by large law firms around the country increasing first-year associate salaries to $145,000 and $160,000, as well as incremental increases of other classes by as much as $15,000 have done little to provide law firm attorneys with a realistic understanding of their worth in the corporate legal market.
They forget one crucial distinction between the law firm and in-house environment. While associates and partners are an integral part of the law firm’s “profit centers” and help generate millions of dollars in revenues on behalf of the firm, when they transition in-house, they become “part of the overhead.” In-house counsels, with very few exceptions in the licensing area, do not generate revenues. At best, they protect a company from liability. Unlike a law firm that sees the hiring of associates and partners as a means to increase productivity and revenues, companies must determine whether hiring an attorney in-house is cost effective, in both the short and long run. The value proposition changes drastically, and therefore, so does the compensation.
The question that each attorney must resolve in his mind, is whether he or she can absorb the cost of transitioning in-house – as for most of them, there will be a significant monetary tradeoff.
Can You Handle The Limited Career Path?
By now, some of those left with the experience and the willingness to make the financial sacrifices may think that it’s just a matter of time before they make their way to a more senior-level position or take the general counsel position. Well, not so fast.
According to a 2005 Survey conducted by Corporate Counsel, nearly seventy-five percent (75%) of in-house counsels polled described overall opportunities for advancement in their departments as either "limited" or nonexistent. Although many of the 1,278 respondents reported that they had been promoted since going in-house, they said that they were unlikely to get much further. Nineteen percent (19%) said there were no opportunities for advancement whatsoever for them in their department, while fifty-six percent (56%) percent said opportunities were limited.
What does it mean for you? If you think that with time you will enjoy promotions including a better title or a significant increase in pay, you may be going in with unrealistic expectations. Most corporate legal departments are small or flat in terms of structure; therefore, title promotions or elevation to other roles tend to be rare. Unlike law firms where you move up class levels every year, and enjoy significant pay raises, when transitioning in-house you may find yourself in the same position for many years to come, with pay raises that average 3-5% a year.
Most in-house counsels bid their times and move up only when a more senior counsel decides to retire or to transition to another company. In fact, the best chance for advancement may be jumping to the legal department of another company. Companies with larger legal departments of fifty or more attorneys, usually have more avenues for advancement. They may have a more hierarchical structure to enable its attorneys to move up to more senior roles with more responsibilities and greater levels of compensation. That said, in-house attorneys don’t have the same clear and linear career path as their law firm counterparts, and opportunities for advancement for the most part are limited. Before you make any decisions, you need to ask yourself whether you are ready to bid your time and live with fewer opportunities for advancement.
Before you start polishing your resume and look for in-house positions, make sure you’ve gained the experience you will need to succeed in-house, that you are able to let go of your attractive law firm compensation package, and can work in an environment where your career path will not be a straight line.
The trade-offs are far from perfect; however, most lawyers who made that transition with open eyes insist that going in-house was a decision they would make again. Gripes and all, in-house lawyers are nearly unanimous in preferring the more complex path they've chosen. How do we know? Only 1 percent of in-house lawyers say they'd like to be at a law firm.
The number of attorneys who are interested in making the transition in-house is increasing, despite current economics. While securing an in-house position has always been difficult because of supply and demand, doing so in this economy is even more challenging. There is a significant distinction between wanting to go in-house and being ready to go in-house – something that many attorneys tend to miss when conducting their job search. In this article, we discuss what it takes to become a strong candidate for an in-house position in today’s marketplace.
The ideal in-house candidate is an experienced attorney with at least five years or more of professional practice experience, who can operate fairly independently. Why five years or more? In-house legal departments are not good training grounds for recent law graduates and junior-level attorneys. Companies generally do not have the resources available to train attorneys. Moreover, in-house attorneys, unlike their law firm counterparts, are viewed as part of overhead. Therefore, while attorneys are a necessity, they do not contribute to the financial bottom line of the companies they serve. Therefore, in-house legal departments have every incentive to want to hire experienced attorneys who require little training or supervision.
Is there such a thing as too much experience? In some cases, there is. Companies tend to value hiring attorneys who have both law firm and in-house experience. Partner-level attorneys who only have law firm experience are at risk of being passed for positions, junior-level or otherwise. They tend to be viewed as too specialized, not business-oriented enough, and lacking in industry experience. That prejudice tends to grow in accordance with the length of time they have remained in private practice without ever having held an in-house position. Partner-level attorneys are often viewed as too “inflexible” and expensive to successfully transition in-house. In an employer-driven market companies get what companies want, whether or not these preferences are justified. Therefore, the best time to consider an in-house transition is after five years of practice and before partnership.
When it comes to the type of practice area in-house legal departments are interested in when hiring, it is important to remember that not all practice areas are created equal. While corporate law departments do hire attorneys in a variety of specialized practice areas, including litigation, labor and employment, intellectual property, real estate, and tax – to name a few, these positions are few and far in between. In other words, there are very few in-house legal opportunities available for these practice areas. Moreover, because of the type of competition that is generated for these few position, outstanding candidates are often kept from ever making the final cut.
If you are playing a numbers game, which is what you have to do when considering an in-house attorney position, and you are interested in moving up on the in-house totem poll, you should have general corporate and commercial contracts experience. In other words, transactional attorneys have an edge in the number of positions available to them, not to mention improved prospects for advancement within law departments, including general counsel positions.
To improve your odds even further, you should supplement your transactional practice with some exposure to litigation, employment, corporate governance, finance, intellectual property, and governmental regulations, to be able to assist a company gets its goods or services to market. Corporate law departments tend to look for “generalists,” or attorneys who are able to spot issues and handle matters in a wide variety of areas. In other words, most in-house counsel act like ER doctors conducting triage when the ambulance gets in. They have to quickly identify the problem, establish priorities, determine what they can handle themselves and whether they will require the services of a specialist, or in this case an outside counsel.
Even if you have the required experience and practice area to be a good candidate for an in-house position, there are a number of “soft skills” you need to be competitive and successful for these positions. First, as an in-house attorney you need to have business sense. When a company hires in-house counsels, they are expected to provide legal advice in a business context. The ability to understand business objectives and provide legal advice to non-lawyers is crucial to succeeding as an in-house counsel. Along those lines, the ability to persuade is also an important quality to have, as counsels often have to defend their positions. This assumes strong negotiation skills, as well as superior oral and written communication skills.
In-house attorneys are also required to work with a wide variety of people, from senior executives to employees on the floor. Therefore, having strong interpersonal skills and the ability to be comfortable in a variety of situations, from conducting formal board meetings to dispensing informal hallway advice, it very important as well. Finally, a successful in-house attorney must be able to provide practical advice. In other words, companies tend to turn to their counsel for solutions to their business problems, rather than for textbook advice or opinions. To be an effective problem-solver, an in-house attorney must not only be familiar with his company’s business, structure or industry, but also its culture and its risk management standards. Of course, these are but a few of the soft skills that are required to be an effective in-house counsel; there are others, many of which are company and industry-specific. What is to be remembered is that being an experienced and skilled legal practitioner, while a requisite, is not always sufficient to become a strong candidate for in-house positions in today’s marketplace.
Law school is important if you want to be a lawyer. But how important is it to choose the right law school? Does it really matter if you went to Harvard? Or is any program acceptable as long as you worked hard and have something to show for it?
Business Insider asked top legal recruiters all over the country to weigh in. Their answers might surprise you.