4 Tips to Consider When Transitioning from Law Firm to In-House
By Meaghan Johnston
The traditional, tried-and-true career path for recent graduates of law school is to jump into whichever law firm where they spent their summer internship, hoping to climb the ladder and follow the conventional partnership path. However, each year we find an increasing number of attorneys are realizing that the law firm life is not compatible with their personal life, or even their long-term career aspirations, particularly after the past few tumultuous years. Often, law firm lawyers feel stuck, wondering if the grass is greener on the other side, or in this case, the other side of the law practice. Their in-house counterparts seem to operate in a different world of law, one that’s intriguing, yet intimidating to jump into.
Many legal professionals often feel they want a more defined career path or more sophisticated, high-quality work with high-caliber clients. Some questions they might ask are: “What are the differences between working in a law firm versus in-house as a lawyer? What in-house job options are available to someone at my current level of experience? What does the process of transitioning from a law firm to an in-house career look like?”
We chatted with several Axiom attorneys who described the pros and cons of the law firm life, how and why they switched to in-house roles, and ultimately, what led them to a flexible legal provider like Axiom. In their own words, here’s what they have to say.
Differences between working through a law firm and in-house
Most Axiom legal professionals have both private practice and in-house legal experience, so they are well-prepared to elaborate on all the details and nuances within each sector. While not always the case, typically lawyers who are in-house began with a firm first, most often with the aim to achieve a better work-life balance or a faster approach to a leadership position (like general counsel). What are some of the reasons Axiom lawyers left law firm life?
The pressure to stay on the partner track
Most law firms frown upon taking large chunks of time off from work, forcing many employees to worry about vacations or extended leave until close to retirement in order to stay on the partner track. For lawyers earlier in their careers, they might hesitate to take time off at all. This is particularly detrimental to lawyers wanting to start a family, who worry they’ll have to put off this monumental life change at the expense of their career.
“I resented the late nights, long weekends, and canceled vacations. I reduced my hours and went off the partnership track, which got me closer to a sustainable balance. But when one of my clients asked me to go in-house, I felt ready to leave the law firm life behind,” says Teri, who left BigLaw to spend more time with her young children.
The law firm environment inherently discourages spending extended personal time outside of work, which can also be detrimental to mental and emotional well-being. Time to focus on self-care is essential to avoiding burnout, and at a time when lawyers are facing all-time high levels of stress, being able to spend time with friends and family is more vital than ever.
Teri elaborates on the struggle to meet her familial goals: “In my former BigLaw life, I switched firms so I could work in the same building as my children’s daycare. I scheduled my life in six-minute increments, and I was spending roughly 400 hours a year commuting when I could have spent that time billing or parenting. As you progress toward partnership, client demands increase, and as my kids transitioned into toddlerhood, they needed more of me. So, lateraling to a firm that would reduce my commute felt like a no-brainer.”
Another Axiom lawyer and working mom of four, Marcia, describes how she delayed starting a family, even though a large family had always been a dream of hers: “I used to be a workaholic when I was working in the law firm environment. I didn’t start a family during those early years because, at that time, I couldn’t seem to establish boundaries or limits. My family and social life suffered because the law firm culture didn’t encourage balance or quality of life outside of work and I couldn’t figure out how to excel simultaneously in both spheres.”
Mike, a junior lawyer, was disappointed when he joined his first firm: “I was quite unhappy when I was at a law firm. It felt like my life was being measured in six-minute increments of an hour. And I didn't feel that I was really appreciated by the people who were meant to be sort of mentoring me. They didn't seem to care too much about my career path or ambitions.” Not only did he have less time for family, but he also didn’t feel supported in his career aspirations.
Projects take longer through law firms
Because law firm lawyers are not embedded in their client’s day-to-day team or everyday work, there is a disconnect between the legal professionals working at the law firm and the in-house client. Projects are likely to progress more slowly, especially when more handholding needs to take place. This is typical of the law firm, in-house client relationship.
“One advantage I've noticed is when working with other [in-house] departments…is they're usually pretty familiar with the legal department and the legal process. It’s not like when I was at a firm and had to explain the basics and just start from the bottom with new clients. They were already, for the most part, caught up to speed,” says Lauren. “I've had situations where I'm working on something and I'll send it back to whoever originally asked me to work on it, and they'll come back an hour or two later with the changes, ready for me to review again. At a law firm, getting things back from clients often took a bit more time. Within in-house, since this is their focus, the other teams usually have things back to you pretty quickly.”
In-house allows you to expand your skill set or try new practice areas
One of the biggest benefits of working directly with a business is being able to expand your skill set. You’re not always forced to be one of many lawyers on a case siloed into one particular practice area. Larger legal departments might have lawyers working on different projects, but there is a greater opportunity to expand your skill set or learn something new or interesting.
Lauren explains how she has stayed within the practice area she enjoys but has been able to develop new proficiencies she otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to experience: “When I was at a firm, I primarily was drafting patents, I was responding to office actions, and I did the same thing with trademarks. And while I did enjoy that, I wanted to see what else was out there in the intellectual property field. And even though this isn't necessarily a complete change in my area of law, I was ready to pivot away from patents. [Through working in-house], I was able to branch out into marketing and advertising law, which is somewhat under the IP umbrella, but it was still different from what I had done in the past, and I really didn't have any experience in that before. I discovered that's something that I really like and find interesting."
Black-and-white answers vs. creative solutions
Elayna, who has spent most of the last two decades as an Axiom lawyer, says: “Traditional law firm life is wonderful for getting training. I think that if you are at all creative or innovative with your career in the legal space, it’s not a place where I felt like I could grow the way I wanted to. There was a very specific career path that many others had taken before me. And that was the path I was supposed to take. And that didn’t sit well with me because I really wanted to make my own career path. But I wasn’t in the environment where that could occur.”
“There’s a different expectation level working directly with the business, versus when you're at a law firm. What you do when you're authoring a legal memo at a law firm is not what you do when you're responding to the business […]. They're looking for creative solutions and they're looking for a way to meet their goals.” Axiom lawyer Ava, who works in data privacy law, finds you can be more creative in-house, even if it’s at a faster pace. Her experiences in-house show companies are eager to improve processes and find new ways of working and look to her for guidance.
Ava adds: “One key difference is you really get to know the business when you're in-house. If you don't know the business, you can't really help them in a meaningful way. So I found that working in-house, I was immediately involved in the day-to-day activities of the business, which provided me with key insight and a better understanding of what the business did and what they were looking to accomplish. And I found that I could help them find compliant business solutions because I understood the business. And I think that when you work for a law firm, you look at things from a black-and-white perspective and you provide advice based on ‘the law says X, so you can do X,’ but when you're in-house and you're really engrossed in the business, the business is looking for a ‘why,’ and want you to help them achieve this so that the business can then achieve its goals.”
Transitioning between the law firm and in-house
Transitioning between firms and in-house legal departments might seem daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be, no matter your level of experience. There are a few things to consider.
- Be ready to be collaborative and offer guidance
- Over-communicating is key
- In-house roles often work at a faster pace
- Expect to get real-time feedback vs. waiting for end-of-year performance reviews
Be ready to be collaborative and offer guidance
You’re a valued partner to the business and part of the team, but that means you’re also collaborating with all the other departments outside of legal. They trust you and look to you for guidance.
Ava breaks down how to be a successful and integral part of the business by being a partner: “Understanding the difference of where you are is key: You’re no longer at a law firm and you’re not authoring legal memos; you’re partnering with a business and you're an advocate for that business. The business is coming to you and they're looking for solutions. You want to partner with them and help them meet their goals. It's not about billable hours; it's about providing sound legal guidance promptly without dancing around the issue. Many law firms provide general guidance without actually giving you the green light to say ‘yea’ or’ nay.’ Once you're in-house, the expectation is that you will counsel them and you will say, ‘yes, you can do this, and this is why’, or ‘no, you can't do this.’ But ideally, you're partnering with the business, you're partnering with HR, you're partnering with IT, and you're working with these departments day in and day out. It’s about a positive business relationship. If you have a good relationship with the business, then you'll do well.”
The relationships you build in-house (and across the company) are vastly different when you’re in the business, rather than working at a distance in a firm-client relationship. Lauren agrees: “Working in-house, you're much more integrated into the business, whereas at a law firm, we had our clients more at an arm’s length, where we weren't as involved with their day-to-day work. Whereas being in-house, you definitely are. It’s very important you keep a good relationship with the different departments; you will have other teams come to you and they’ll quickly want an answer, or they'll have a deadline or something important coming up, and you just can't say, ‘well, I'll go research it’ or something like that. You have to have an actionable plan that’s quickly available.”
“In my experience in traditional law firms, while you get great training, you typically only get piecemeal work of a bigger project and you don’t really align yourself necessarily with the client’s goals,” adds Elayna. “Now, I work very closely with my clients. So we are aligned with not only legal aspects of what they’re asking advice about, but also with their market goals. So the way that I practice is entirely different now. It’s more engaged; it’s more focused on getting them to where they want to be rather than just taking a discrete issue and counseling them.”
Overcommunicating is key
When you’re in-house, you’re going to be communicating more regularly with stakeholders and the other members of the legal department. Instead of just check-ins with clients, you’re now part of the problem, the solution, the progress, and everything in between. Ensuring your team members, both within and outside of your department, are kept up to speed is vital.
“I think the law firms are realizing that they need to progress,” says Jack, an Axiom lawyer who used to work in private firms and now runs his own businesses alongside Axiom engagements. “For me, personally, I approach my work as a consultant instead of a lawyer, per se, because I recognize I’m in the service industry where customer satisfaction is really important. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, as a lawyer or consultant, because many lawyers don’t see themselves as a provider of customer satisfaction. It’s about communication and ensuring the client’s needs [are] being met. You can’t hide. You have to be available and visible to take on work. The skill set that’s important for any in-house lawyer is constant communication with the client. ‘Are you getting what you need? Is this what you are looking for? Any other issues you have?’ It might be overcommunicating, but I found it’s helpful to say, ‘I’m available for anything you need.’”
In Ava’s experience at one of her first in-house engagements, she proved her value to the legal department and the business, earning their trust and ensuring she was part of the team. She knew communication was vital to her role, and her Axiom client wanted her involvement up front, as a partner: “I turned around NDAs, contracts, and master services agreements in record time and that made me amenable to the business. I got along with them, and they would come to me with legal issues. They wouldn't do something and then come to me after; they would come to me beforehand and say, ‘because you’re an advocate for us, this is what we want to do, so how can we do this?’”
In-house roles often work at a faster pace
Similarly, Ava discusses not only the communication behind the work, but the speed of the work: “I think the timeliness is key, and I know this is just kind of the nature of being at a law firm, but when you turn something around a week later, the expectation here is different. It’s ‘we need an answer now. This is something that we're trying to do. We're trying to get ahead. We're trying to be competitive. We have goals that we're trying to meet.’ I can't emphasize enough the importance of timeliness. The law firm norm of extended turnaround times is just not feasible when you're in-house.”
Expect to get real-time feedback vs. waiting for end-of-year performance reviews
While law firms tend to evaluate performance on a year-end basis, companies more often will be regularly reviewing processes and projects so they can make changes to the next project based on the successes or challenges from previous legal work. Lauren points out: “Success in-house is determined on a rolling basis. It kind of depends on the project, how that project goes, and evaluating what you could have done differently to help it along, in anticipation of the next project.”
Ava agrees: “I feel like I'm getting real-time guidance, advice, and feedback on how I'm doing, which is good because I'd like to know if I need to be working in other areas or helping the company in other ways. It’s nice to hear them tell you it's positive you're there, you're doing good work, and you're providing them with the solutions that they need.”
So, is the grass actually greener in-house? Or is there an even better alternative?
The often-elusive work-life balance is one of the main drivers pushing law firm lawyers to seek in-house positions. However, once seated within a company as part of its in-house legal department, legal professionals may find the work is just as demanding, or sometimes even more so, and often comes with fewer internal resources.
In fact, a recent Axiom survey found a whopping 78% of in-house counsel feel stressed or burned out, 41% report not having enough bandwidth to address their needs, their ballooning workload, and emerging legal risks, and virtually all (99%) report that both the volume and complexity of legal matters has increased.
For Axiom lawyer Teri (who left the law firm life to focus on family), she found her first in-house role was just as demanding as her BigLaw one. Along with her team, Teri supported a large, rapid-growth retailer with in-person requirements and limited resources, which once more put a strain on that desire for work-life balance: “I like to work, truly, but I was working too much.” She goes on to debunk the idea that “going in-house is magical,” clarifying that many in-house lawyers work 50-60 hours per week: “I found myself having to outsource a lot of parenting, which I hated, and I was mentally drained. So, when daycare closed [due to the pandemic], I took that as a sign to step away for a bit.”
Axiom affords you the flexibility to work where you want to work, when you want to work
Once she was ready to start working again, Teri chose to work for Axiom instead of some local in-house roles for which she interviewed, due to her family’s needs. Through Axiom, she was able to work in a remote, part-time capacity: “I had initially hoped to find part-time engagements to get me through the pandemic. I also viewed Axiom as an opportunity for me to confirm whether in-house was the right place for me, or whether I wanted to explore going back to a firm or even transition to another career completely. As things turned out, Axiom has become my long-term plan.”
Mike’s path was similar to Teri’s. He imagined Axiom would provide him with a path toward an in-house role, but he fell in love with its model: “Axiom at first felt like more of a short-term move. I felt like I wanted to make the move to in-house work from being in a law firm. And this seemed like a good way for me to get a couple of names on my resume, turn around and go work for someone else. But over the last couple of years working for Axiom's clients, I've been able to live a really amazing life. I've gotten to do a lot of traveling, spend a lot of time in a lot of cool places, and spend time with a lot of the people who mean the most to me. So now I don't see it as a short-term move. I really do see it as my long-term career path.”
Axiom provides you the opportunity to gain different, broader experience
Axiom lawyer Laura, a seasoned litigator, found a new passion for data privacy after decades at prestigious law firms but realized the only way to pursue this work seriously would be to transition her role to an in-house position. She made the decision to move to Axiom to gain in-house experience in this new practice area. She explains how she made this career-altering decision after weighing the risks and benefits: “I decided to step out and do this one-year project for the firm and found I absolutely loved it. When it was done, I made a decision: I wanted to stay in privacy law rather than go back into litigation. I thought Axiom would offer me a way to have diverse exposure to the practice area more quickly than going into a fixed position with one company.”
Lawyers who successfully transitioned from a BigLaw firm to a small in-house role might have a different experience than a lawyer who makes the jump from a small firm into a globally recognized company, or even one who leaves a large company for a smaller one (and vice versa). Some may leave large firms hoping for a large in-house department at a prestigious corporation, only to realize they think they could be suited to help out smaller legal departments in need of the particular skills and experiences they’ve acquired and honed throughout their Axiom engagements.
For example, after three years in an engagement with a Fortune 10 telecom provider, Laura feels like she has much more to offer other businesses, particularly smaller legal departments that may need more complex data privacy support: “I see how valuable my experience could be to smaller companies that might not be approaching privacy at this level or with this amount of attention to the quickly expanding U.S. privacy landscape. A lot of companies could really benefit from seeing how it’s done in the big leagues.” The experiences Axiom provides lawyers through its wide range of clients are invaluable for any legal professional at any stage of their career, and allow them to explore new roles they might otherwise have never tried.
When Lauren first started at Axiom, she was approached with numerous opportunities, some of which she would never have considered before. It gave her the potential to learn a new practice area, and she decided, “why not?” She says, “If you broaden your horizons a bit and are open to new things, you can try something you’d never get the chance to do through a law firm. I’m so happy I took the chance with Axiom and learned new things to improve my career.”
Working with various in-house departments through Axiom engagements enables lawyers to continue growing and expanding their skill sets and experiences. “Working with all these different companies and being integrated into their legal practices allows you to really get to see first-hand and take best practices from each client, help build your knowledge, and help you become a better attorney for your next client,” says Axiom attorney Ayako. He goes on to say, “This role allows me to use everything that I've learned in my background, really leverage those experiences and bring it to my client. It requires a lot of thinking on your feet, learning a product as quickly as you can, and then basically you try to poke holes in the product to identify the risks.”
Axiom lawyer Zach agrees: “One of my only regrets of going in-house was that I spent four years working for just one client[…]. The one big experience I didn’t have was working for different clients. Axiom has given me the opportunity to keep that in-house-style role while getting experience from moving from engagement to engagement.”
Axiom allows you to lead, help shape business strategy
Another important difference between working through Axiom vs. being employed by the company itself is the ability to lead a structured team of lawyers, while still acting as outside counsel to a client. You get the best of both worlds. Jenny, a UK lawyer serving with a global bank, says her client uses a mix of flexible legal talent (Axiom) and external law firm support to supplement its in-house legal department: “The project I’m working on now involves Axiom, external legal counsel, internal legal counsel, and obviously the internal client. The advice we get from external counsel is technically good, as they are the specialists, but our ability and our knowledge of how to take what they’ve produced and turn it into something that’s more useful for the client in-house is where I thrive, and that’s one of the differences.” She finds it astonishing what some law firms offer for advice and how often it may take a significant amount of refinement for it to be in a format that can be used with the business. She thinks it’s due to a lack of understanding of how legal advice is perceived and presented in an in-house environment.
“[Other lawyers] think ‘Oh, I’ve done data privacy all my life, I’ve got to stick to that. I can’t do anything that takes me away from that.’ But for me, I had a skill in being able to turn my hand to different things and be able to view how projects are carried out in various companies. Different subject matters, but similar projects.” What does this mean for Jenny’s clients? It means that her clients have immediate access to her vast knowledge of what contributes to the successes and failures of similar projects. Simply put, her perspective of approaching projects from different angles helps the client improve their business strategies: “It makes me feel like I’ve added a lot of extra value, even if it’s not just strictly legal value.”
Axiom’s model makes you a key player within the in-house legal department on Day 1
While attorneys brought in as outside support or counsel used to be somewhat stigmatized and stereotyped as lesser than or not being able to keep pace with law firms or in-house teams, Marcia easily dispelled that myth: “Axiom does a great job of shepherding us and helping clients to recognize our value at the inception of an engagement. So when we arrive, clients view us as attorneys who are there because we want to be, and they already know our resumes and experience are high-caliber and impressive. Our talents are proven on Day One, and that permits us to get right to work doing what we do best.”
Additionally, Laura notes that some companies prefer to hire for their in-house legal team at lower seniority levels or at the lower end of the pay scale. Thus, for an experienced lawyer, going directly to work in-house might involve accepting a lower-level position in order to get in the door: “With Axiom, you don’t have to do that. You can be placed in these top-notch in-house legal groups and immediately function at a level commensurate with your experience.”
Axiom empowers you during economic downturns
Elayna, who joined Axiom back during the recession of 2008, worried about the jump from law firm to in-house, and found a flexible model like Axiom’s to be less scary: “I think all of us were taking a really hard look at our careers, our career paths, our futures in the jobs that we were in at that point. It was a very anxiety-ridden time in the law, there were impending layoffs, and that was the climate during which I started looking at alternatives. I knew that I wanted something more creative, but I didn’t know exactly what. I loved being a lawyer, but at the time I definitely didn’t see the next ten or even five years in traditional large law firm life where I had been for nearly a decade at that point. So, I considered going in-house, but that was a huge step going directly from traditional law firm life, which is the only life I knew as a lawyer, directly to in-house. That was, it seemed to me, a very risky proposition, because what if I didn’t like it? Then I’d be stuck in this environment that wasn’t really what I wanted for my practice. So it was like something from the universe brought Axiom to me.”
One of Axiom’s longest-employed lawyers knows her career is exactly where it should be now. Not through a firm, or a permanent in-house role, but through the flexibility and experiences afforded to her through this flexible model: “I have had a career that has been peppered over the past 14 years with really exciting work, not just legal work, and we’ve built entire intellectual property departments for our clients. We’ve implemented new technology. We’ve helped them with best practices. It’s a very exciting way to practice. And my career has completely changed from the point at which I joined Axiom to now. With our clients, we are constantly innovating. I feel like Axiom is an environment where if you are creative in the law, we have creative products, special services, and bespoke solutions for our clients.”
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Meaghan Johnston is a writer with more than a decade's experience analyzing legal and healthcare industry trends.
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