Why LL.M. Grads are Leaving Big Law Firms and Moving In-House

Many top law school graduates are attracted by the more diverse and dynamic general counsel jobs

When Martin Berchtold finished his LL.M. from New York’s Columbia Law School, he returned to private practice where the prestige and high pay is, taking up a place in the dispute resolution group of SchellenBerg Wittmer in Zurich. But he soon had a change of heart, and wanted to move in-house where he could do more global work.

“In law firms, it often was more about providing small pieces in relation to my jurisdiction,” says Berchtold, who worked for Wenger Plattner prior to law school. 

In 2012 he joined one of his clients at SchellenBerg: UBS, the Swiss investment bank and later healthcare group Novartis, where he has held a spate of positions and has risen up the ranks: now he’s the general counsel for a franchise of Novartis in Basel. 

He says the team is more diverse and dynamic at law firms. “Providing fast, effective solutions to problems was very attractive,” Berchtold says. “Being able to just talk about the idea, often without having to worry about twenty disclaimers at the end of an advice, was key. I also felt that working with peers from incredibly different cultural backgrounds was a huge advantage over a law firm.” 

The LL.M. degree is a well-trodden path to Big Law, with firms such as Jones Day; Sullivan & Cromwell; Latham & Watkins hoovering up graduates, by offering them enormous starting salaries and potentially even a path to partner, which often means earning millions and working on megadeals and high-profile cases. 

An increasing number of LL.M. grads are going in-house

While Big Law firms are still attractive, in-house legal departments are increasingly appealing for graduates of top LL.M. programs, who are entering them in far larger numbers than ever before. 

“There are a couple of major market forces at work here,” says Rachel Zuraw, co-director of LL.M. professional development at Berkeley Law in California: “There is no guarantee that you will make partner at your law firm, and companies are building increasingly sophisticated and large in-house legal teams. So law students are seeing more venues where they can pursue interesting work.”

Peter Landreth, Zuraw’s co-director, adds that in-house work can be a lifestyle upgrade for attorneys who have been working in Big Law, where the hours are often grueling. “A major attraction is leaving the conventional billable hour model of most law firms behind,” he says. “As an in-house attorney, you are part of a team working towards a business objective, irrespective of how many hours it takes.” 

However, he adds that it is still relatively unusual for companies to hire LL.M. grads right out of law school — unless they have significant experience in private practice. 

“Companies still rely on law firms to provide practical training for junior attorneys so that when they transition to in-house work they can hit the ground running.”

Zuraw agrees: “Many in-house legal departments still view that as the best training ground, and it will expose young lawyers to everything that can go wrong by working with a variety of clients so that they can later help a single company get everything right.” 

Differences between in-house work and private practice

The biggest difference between being general council and a private attorney is the scope of the work: you have just one client when you’re in-house. Some lawyers prefer the variety of client work you get at a law firm. But in-house, you can still get this exposure, says Landreth: helping your company navigate litigation, transactional and regulatory work, from labor disputes to mergers and acquisitions, to securities compliance.

Nick Barrass, a recruitment consultant at Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment in London, says the growth in popularity of working in-house reflects the growth of general counsel. “Legal teams have grown humongous as businesses have got bigger and are spending more money on their legal teams.” 

The downside to the surge in popularity is the rise in competition for general counsel jobs. “It’s certainly not any easier to get a job in-house than in private practice, Barrass says. “The same things still apply: intelligence, desire, capability are valued. An interest in what the business does and some experience in the field may also help.” 

Berchtold at Novartis agrees: “You are normally a true business partner and not just the lawyer, which often means that you need to have an incredibly good understanding of the company and business; and also know the various functions in a big company very well.”

He adds that the key to success in-house is curiosity, being able to think outside the box and inspire colleagues across functions. “In a law firm, you are the most valuable asset and need to deliver billable hours. In-house you are just one asset of many and have it in your own hands if you want to be seen just as a lawyer or a true partner.” 

There are downsides to working in-house. “In large companies, a lot of things are process-driven, which sometimes takes out the drive of things,” says Berchtold. 

Zuraw at Berkeley Law adds: “If you are a junior attorney, being at a tiny startup could be negative because you don’t have anyone to train you; conversely, if you are an experienced attorney, being at a tiny startup could give you the chance to really flex your knowledge and judgment.” 

She adds that in in-house departments people tend to specialize in a field of law, so you should make sure that you are really interested in the role for which you are applying. 

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