For years, making partner at a leading law firm was the aspiration for the top law school graduates. Elite firms such as Freshfields in London or Skadden in New York are willing to pay a premium for star talent to work on big-ticket cases.
That is now changing at big-name law schools like Columbia and Berkeley. They are finding that, these days, young attorneys are just as likely to aspire to a role as a general counsel of a blue-chip corporation as they are as a law firm managing partner, once the pinnacle of private practice.
Law school administrators and careers advisors put this shift down to both the growing attractiveness of the more dynamic and diverse in-house legal teams as well as the decreasing allure of elite law firms, where the work and travel schedule can be punishing.
“More and more students are looking at in-house opportunities,” says Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean at New York’s Fordham Law School. “Many professionals find the general counsel route to be extraordinarily attractive.”
Lawyers work more closely with their clients and take ownership of strategic issues that can make or break a business. “Private practitioners rarely get to see the richness of the issues confronting a client — this is the experience in-house,” Jaeger-Fine says. “Attorneys can really become valuable players in the C-suite and a genuine partner in the client’s business.”
More women going into legal practice
Jaeger-Fine says that making partner at large law firms comes with a lifestyle that does not fit many young people. “This generation seems much more committed to a healthier and more balanced lifestyle.”
Rebecca Moor, associate director for professional development at Boston University School of Law, agrees. “There is a greater appreciation for a work/life balance than there may have been in the past, in part because more women are going into legal practice,” she says. “Many in-house jobs offer lawyers the ability to have a more regular, predictable schedule.”
Moor says the work that lawyers do in-house may be more varied too. “Rather than diving deep into one big case or area of law, in-house counsel often handle a wide mix, from employment law to pension plans. For some lawyers, this variety leads to more intellectual satisfaction.”
Val Myteberi, associate dean for graduate programs at Cardozo Law in New York, says the role of the general counsel has evolved: “They play a more sophisticated role in businesses, counseling executives in strategic meetings and pre-empting problems to inform decisions. This new scope offers enormous opportunities for lawyers to really have a seat at the table and be seen as creative leaders and business decision-makers at the highest levels.”
She says many in-house attorneys are attracted by the opportunity to be exposed to a unique set of challenges. “Now more than ever, in-house lawyers have to wear many hats; they have to be entrepreneurial problem-solvers who can troubleshoot business and legal risks and fix problems before they occur. It’s exactly what many lawyers are looking for.”
At the same time, the path to law firm partnership has become more difficult, especially as more companies are growing their in-house legal departments and shifting power internally rather than relying on an outside firm, according to Myteberi.
A sense of purpose
In-house legal teams can also offer young lawyers a sense of purpose. Many general counsel have been called on by their companies to respond to Covid-19 and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“In-house attorneys are uniquely positioned to make a great impact on their companies and communities more broadly,” says Jaeger-Fine. “They have been relied on to respond to the pandemic and they have very much been the force behind the drive for greater diversity and inclusion in the profession.”
In-house attorneys also have a great amount of influence over sustainability efforts such as energy use, waste and pollution – issues which so many young lawyers are passionate about. “In-house attorneys are at the forefront of regulatory and government relations matters, and they have the ability to shape how law firms function and to push them toward greater efficiencies,” says Jaeger-Fine.
Other law schools point out that fighting the pandemic, driving diversity and encouraging social justice are very complex issues involving a wide variety of stakeholders. “I don't necessarily believe that in-house teams are the place to make the most impact,” says Moor at BU Law.
The job opportunities in-house, though, are promising. According to one global poll, nearly a third of legal departments are planning to hire more lawyers in 2021, an increase from the number that planned to recruit last year.
But the contradiction, Moor notes, is that many in-house jobs require significant experience, often at a law firm. “For many law graduates, working at a law firm remains a top priority immediately after graduation, not least because doing work as a young associate is such a great foundation for a wide range of legal careers, including making partner at a law firm and working in-house,” she adds.
Jaeger-Fine says that, until relatively recently, a recent law school graduate could not realistically expect to be hired in-house. But that has started to change. “As companies are taking a build rather than buy approach to legal services, there will be greater openness to hiring entry-level in-house talent.”
Myteberi is also optimistic about the expansion of in-house opportunities for LL.M. students who are graduating this year. “Companies are looking to cut costs and increase efficiency by handling more legal matters in-house, and they are looking for practical, resilient people who are go-getters.”