Ah yes, it’s the so-called laid-back life of an in-house lawyer. Is it all it’s lauded — and sometimes chided — to be? More importantly, is it right for you? And once you’ve decided it’s the right move for your career goals and lifestyle, how do you smoothly make the transition from private practice to in-house?
The in-house versus outhouse debate can be as vitriolic and political as the East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry. In-house lawyers snicker that private practice lawyers are cogs in the machine: bleary-eyed pencil pushers who stay late just to show face to the bosses. Private-practice lawyers often imagine departed colleagues in their new in-house lives at their desks, heels kicked up, nitpicking external counsel’s submitted disbursements, counting the minutes until 5 p.m., and putting in the years until they can cash in their pensions.
What the heck is a pension anyway?
Both have their pros and cons — and couldn’t be more different than the smack talk surrounding them. You may see yourself potentially enjoying both lives, but at the end of the day it’s hard to say which is better. If the idea of trading a bit of income in return for some of the aforementioned in-house perks is tempting, know that those rumours aren’t always true.
Will Chang, director of legal affairs at Transat A.T. Inc., a global player in the vacation industry, has put in time at a few large Bay Street firms and has worked in house at several companies in his career. At 33, he’s seen more variety than most lawyers his age and says each of the three in-house positions he’s held have been quite different from each other, never mind from firm life.
“Not all in-house jobs are less hours, and not all pay less, although the contrary is certainly true of most in-house jobs,” he says. “The key to finding the perfect in-house environment rests in finding an industry that you care about and people who are fun to be around. If you’re like me and you want your in-house legal position to lead to higher, perhaps more business-oriented positions, you have to find a company that is willing to respect and nurture those goals.”
Chang says the reasons that led him down the in-house path are simple. “I always enjoyed the legal work but wanted to expand my business horizons,” he says. “Quality of life, as people call it, was also a factor.”
Quality-of-life issues were the primary reason Melissa Morrison left private practice for in-house life. She’s now part of the legal department at Allstate and Pembridge Legal Services in Calgary.
Morrison spent two summers, articling, and less than a year as an associate at Brownlee LLP before deciding to make the move. “I happened to know a previous associate that I had worked with who was working at Allstate, and through discussions with him I kind of liked the idea of making the transition,” she recalls. “Obviously from a lifestyle perspective it sort of fit where I was in my life, and what I also particularly like about it is that it’s a small office of four lawyers and we would all be, regardless of our level of experience, dealing with the same types of files — and they were our own files.”
Controlling her own files is something Morrison treasures about her new career. In June, she’ll have been with Allstate for three years. “We were running [our own files] from start to finish on our own. What was also quite appealing to me was that I had a lot more interesting work to do and the files were my own. I wasn’t working on a small piece of a bigger puzzle.”
Chang says once in-house, he easily made the shift to become a more business-oriented lawyer. “I quickly learned to focus on the bottom line, to find ways to make things happen, as opposed to carefully exploring and reducing to memo format all the reasons why something should or should not be legally advisable and then leaving it to someone else to make the final call.
“At one position in particular, I was often able to essentially play the role of both negotiator and client, which is something law firm lawyers are rarely able to do, and this resulted in a very different negotiating mindset,” he says. “This tends to happen when you are able to focus your energy entirely on getting the best deal and not on protecting yourself from your own client. The only ‘cover your ass’ memos that I did in those days were generally for my own benefit and often just out of habit.”
Chang says he found these legal differences easy to cope with — at least in hindsight — because they made his job more challenging and fun.
To Morrison, the key for making the transition to in-house is actually what you do while you’re still in private practice. “I made a transition into in-house, I would say, fairly quickly after articling,” she says. “If I hadn’t been open to being thrown into some fairly stressful situations while I was in private practice, I wouldn’t have gotten the relevant experience that I would have needed to get into this kind of job as quickly as I did. You have to be open to some scarier experience and doing things that maybe you don’t feel prepared to do. Be open to that experience, so that you can make the transition.”
Of course, it’s not just the work and the style of working that’s different in house, says Chang. There are cosmetic differences that may require adjustment as well, which, he says, depends on the company and on what one comes to expect after working on, say, Bay Street for several years. “At one position, I remember showing up at work the first day to learn that I would be sitting in what very much resembled a cubicle. They tried to call it an office, but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Interestingly, I made more money at this company than I have at any other job, including my law firm positions, so there is something to be said, I guess, for frugality.”
Finally, let’s not dance around the real issue any longer. What about those eight-hour workdays? Pretty sweet? “The first thing I noticed, obviously, is that there was a much different perspective on lifestyle, to the point where people noticed you here outside of an eight-hour workday,” says Morrison. “They thought it was quite unusual and encouraged you to go home, which was something I had never come in contact with before.”
Chang recalls his experience on the first day of his aforementioned in-house “cubicle job.” “I remember calling my girlfriend within minutes of my first day and saying, ‘I think I’m gonna quit, I can’t work here.’ My perspective quickly changed, though, when I started getting great work and realized that I was expected to leave the office at 5 p.m.”
But don’t think for a minute, they say, that fewer hours equal less work. “In some ways I feel like I work harder than I did in private practice. I may not work necessarily as long hours, but when the files are all your own it’s a harder and different type of work,” says Morrison.
So do either see a chance of switching back over to the “dark side.” Well, yes and no. “I think probably later on,” muses Morrison. “As a woman, I don’t have children now, but it’s certainly a concern of mine how I would make that work in the private practice sphere. I think once my kids were a certain age I would seriously consider going back to private practice.” She says the reason for possibly switching would be to get a broader base of work.
“Where I’m at right now, I deal with a very narrow type of file and at some point I may want to start doing other things.”
Chang is less likely to go back to Big Law. “I hate saying never but I cannot imagine the circumstances that would have to exist, perhaps a cosmic alignment of planets, in order for me to decide to work for a law firm again, at least in respect of the large Bay Street firms.”
So, was exploring the murky and often misunderstood in-house world what they thought it would be? “Love it,” muses Chang; while Morrison says, “I would say even better than I anticipated.”