Why I’m Moving In-House

I’m moving in-house, from a private practice position.

I get asked about the whys of my departure a lot – by my colleagues, by the partners, by my friends (lawyers and non-lawyers alike). I had a lot to think about – it took nearly six weeks to come to a decision. It’s hard to condense into a couple of points or a brief sound bite. Fortunately, this is the Internet; we’ve got all the time and space in the world.

Why Leaving Was a Hard Call

I have a pretty great job. I work with smart (and, perhaps more importantly, kind) people on interesting things. I am well-paid, and I am not chained to my desk by outrageous billable hourly targets. My prospects for advancement are strong, and I have no real doubt that I’d be made a partner in the usual timeframe (say 5-7 years from now). I have hit the jackpot of private-practice law firms – I would not trade my position for that of any one of my friends working in downtown private practice firms, whose conditions are rarely so humane.

But private practice is not the only option. There are several kinds of legal careers; included among them are public sector work (working for the government) and in-house work (working for a corporation).

The company in question is a fascinating one, with exciting technology – quantum computing! After extensive review, I think that they’re probably a perfect in-house fit for me. So it’s a choice between two fantastic things: a fantastic in-house role vs. a fantastic private practice role. Both my firm and the company look like the best of their respective worlds. It is reasonable to conclude that I’d be happy at either, so I really had to examine all available factors to come to a decision.

There are many factors to consider. Two of the big ones are money and time. There are others (I’ll get to that), but these are the first to come up in any conversation that you have about the in-house/private practice divide. These factors are not determinative, but they’re certainly worth considering.

Money vs. Time

Private practice clearly has the advantage on the money front. There’s a small bump when moving over to in-house work at my current level of experience, but private practice incomes grow much faster and soar to much greater heights. In the intermediate-to-long run, there’s no contest.

Let’s look at the numbers. In five-to-seven years, I’d likely be making something like $200,000-$250,000 as a junior partner in a private practice firm. In fifteen years, that figure roughly doubles. And it isn’t self-aggrandizing or unrealistic to believe that this is where I’d end up; unlike a TV law firm where partnership is an unlikely reward for the golden few, my firm has a fairly clearly defined associateship-to-partnership path. By contrast, even experienced in-house counsel might cap out around $200,000 (the mean income for in-house counsel of all levels of experience in my city was $155,000 in 2012), and income growth along the way is much slower. This is lots of money, but it’s still less than half of what I might earn with a comparable level of experience in private practice.

Time is trickier to deal with. There’s a perception that in-house work is less demanding, time-wise. Many of the in-house lawyers I spoke to cautioned me against this assumption. In-house lawyers, by and large, don’t have 40-hour work weeks; the average in-house lawyer in Vancouver works around 47 hours a week, and reports from the trenches suggest that this company is in line with that norm. That might be slightly less than I currently work, but not dramatically so.

But those are current conditions. When I look forward, toward the work I expect to be doing in fifteen years, I see a different picture. Partners in private practice firms are running a business that entirely centers around the billable hour. The result is that partners are subject to tremendous time pressure, leading to most partners in private practice firms (not just at my firm) putting in significantly more time at the office than I do now. By contrast, in-house lawyers report far less growth in that hours-worked statistic over time. So, similar to how in-house work provides similar pay now but much less pay later (relative to private practice), in-house work sees similar quantities of work now and (perhaps) less work later.

There’s more to time than just the number of hours worked. One of the terms that in-house lawyers used a lot when talking about time is “regularity”. In-house work tends to have less of a boom-and-bust cadence (or so I’m told). In private practice, clients often run into issues at the last possible minute, which means you’re working through the weekend to solve the problem by Monday morning. For this reason, when The Missus asks me “when will you be getting home tonight?”, my answer is almost always “I’m not sure, but I’m hoping to be back in time for dinner.”

Surprises can happen anywhere, including in-house, but the refrain from in-house lawyers is that you usually know what’s coming down the pike in advance, and it’s rare to be unexpectedly trapped in the office on a Friday night or Saturday morning. If you won’t be home in time for dinner, you probably know that before you leave in the morning. There’s something to be said for that.

There’s a lot of uncertainty baked in here. Some in-house roles would likely see me putting in even more time than would be the case in private practice, or would involve numerous last-minute deals and all-weekend meetings. Conversely, some private practice partners (especially at my firm) seem to have constructed a fairly balanced workload that leaves them ample time with their families. If I did everything right, perhaps I would find the same balance. But, looking at things probabilistically, I think it’s fair to say that in-house work provides better odds for a more active family life in the long run.

For The Missus, the time factor was determinative – she was a big cheerleader for an in-house role from pretty much day one. I was more cautious. I firmly believe that time is more valuable than money, and I’m willing to pass up an extra one or two (or three) hundred thousand dollars if it means an extra ten hours a week at home to be an active parent in the future. I feel like I make enough money as it is, and (with a baby on the way) time is only going to become more precious. But there’s more to work than time and money.

The Incumbent Advantage

The uncertainty, in particular, is what gets me. In-house work presents the possibility of better balance in an uncertain future, whereas my current job in private practice provides a near-certainty of dramatically higher wages (and, on top of that, the possibility that I’ll figure out how to have a relatively balanced work/life arrangement as I move up through the ranks). On a population level, it’s well and good to find the expected value and call it a day, but on an individual basis, sometimes certainty is its own virtue – a factor to consider in its own right. My firm is a known quantity, and a good one; it’s hard to give that up.

The same analysis applies to softer factors, like work satisfaction and overall happiness. I know that I’m happy at my firm, and there’s value in that. The company sure seems like a place where I’ll be happy, but it lacks that certainty. This is not a big deal when you’re ordering dinner, but it becomes a little more concerning when you’re choosing a career. This factor attenuates a bit when you consider that my practice at the firm will evolve over time, so there’s some uncertainty there, too.

I also have an emotional attachment to my firm. They’ve been good to me, and I would be sad to leave. This is a weak factor – employment is an economic relationship, and it would be perverse to prioritize my short-term feelings over my long-term happiness or familial responsibilities. But, all other things being equal, it presents one more small reason not to leave.

There’s also the question of portability. It’s fairly easy to make the jump from private practice to in-house work, but the common wisdom is that you’d better be darned sure that you’re done with private practice, because private practice will be done with you. My qualifications are quite rare, so I could probably move back to private practice fairly easily within the first couple of years, which gives me a bit of a safety valve. But a boomerang act would set my career back, plus I could end up at a different firm (which would come with its own risks and unknowns). So, whether the common wisdom applies or not, I want to be darned sure.

All of this adds up to a bias against leaving. So I need more than a slight benefit; I need a compelling reason to pick an in-house role at the company over private practice at my firm. The company comes out ahead on the time front, which is a significant factor, but it also presents greater risk. Ideally, it would be someplace I’d want to be even if there was no time benefit (because there might not be one). That is, it needs to come out ahead on the soft factors, too. That’s deeply subjective, and it required some serious soul-searching.

Styles of Practice

In-house and private practice differ in more ways than just the competing numbers of money and time. There’s the actual meat of what you’re doing during those hours, the stuff you’re getting paid for. This is what the in-house lawyers I talked to tended to focus on; they emphasized that going in-house leads to a different way of practicing law, one that was better suited to their lives and personalities.

In private practice, I’m somewhat distanced from my clients. They encounter a problem or legal need, they come to me, we have a brief conversation, I prepare a quote, they provide a retainer, I do some work for them, I record all of the six-minute increments that I spent on the case, and I prepare an invoice. Usually, they’ll want a simple answer to the question “What should I do?”, but often the best answer will depend on business factors that I don’t have access to; I can lay out the options and present a recommendation based on the legal risks, but the “best” option (usually the lowest-risk one) might cost more than makes sense for their organization. If a client adopts a high-risk option, I have to advise them of the risks and I have to ensure that all my doomsaying is documented so that (if it explodes on them later) I don’t get sued for malpractice.

So the distance between private practice lawyer and client manifests in various ways – administrivia, lack of familiarity, competing interests. These are not sufficiently irritating to drive me away from private practice, but I admit that the thought of closing the gap between lawyer and client is an attractive one. Some people actively enjoy the process of constructing their own business (including the quoting, counting, and billing), but I mostly just want to do the work.

This interaction is different in-house. As an employee, an in-house lawyer’s time is already paid for, so the question becomes “What is the most efficient use of your [my] time?” This is a question that I can answer; it’s an optimization problem, after all. The friction between lawyer and client is reduced; when the developers’ group runs into a licensing issue, they can shoot me the licence agreement by email, I can review it, and I can send them my answer. Plus, since in-house counsel have just one client with whom they are intimately familiar, they can be more proactive at identifying legal issues, weighing the costs vs. the risks, and deciding on a solution. In a word, they can be more useful. I like that.

In-house work also seems like it might feed my sense of curiosity. I like the idea of having a client who isn’t a black box. The word I’ve been using is “embedded”; I want to get in there and find out what makes my client tick. Plus, in-house counsel tend to deal with more legal breadth than is encountered in a specialized IP firm. Even as IP counsel, I’ll need to take on non-IP-related legal matters (such as commercial agreements and the like) which don’t come across my desk as frequently at a specialist firm. I’m not unhappy about the specialization of practice at my firm, but I’m also not averse to expanding my areas of expertise.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve burned out on private practice, or that I think in-house practice will be perfect. I’ve been warned that in-house practice will distance me from the downtown hub of legal practice, which will make staying abreast of legal developments harder. In-house work also comes with less prestige, and involves trading in the office, assistant, letterhead, and view for a cubicle. I’m not too worried about prestige (like money, this is not a huge draw for me), but the professional development issue gives me pause. I have some thoughts about how to deal with that, but overall I think that in-house work still comes out with a net negative on the training side. Still, on balance, the style of practice provided by in-house work seems like a good fit for me.

Technology and Legal Issues

Private practice involves dealing with lots of clients and a variety of technologies. This can be interesting, but is also means that your mix of files reflects the broader market, which trends less toward hard research and more toward business applications. In my case, because of my technical background, this means that I spend most of my time working with financial systems, targeted advertising techniques, that sort of thing. It’s always different, and often interesting, but it’s rare to see hard-core math or computer science.

But I like hard-core math and computer science, and this is where this in-house role has a big advantage. They’re doing cutting-edge, foundational research in a new area of technology. Their quantum computers are literally the first of their kind. All kinds of technology can be interesting (and I am usually interested with my work at my firm), but this company’s tech is cool. One of my first conversations at the company was with a PhD in computer science. We talked about applications of graph theory in quantum computing techniques. Do you know how often I get to bust out graph theory in private practice? None. None often.

This is one aspect where the specific qualities of the company (rather than in-house work in general) are really important. I’ve received recruiters’ inquiries from a variety of other organizations, and I’ve turned them down. The specific company had to be the right one, one that ignited the passions. I think this company fits the bill.

Keeping the Good Things

There are a number of things that I like about work at the firm that I’d like to preserve. I have quite a bit of autonomy at the firm, for instance – I take on my own clients, I prepare patent applications and other work products based on my own schedule, and I don’t generally have to worry about the partners second-guessing every move that I make. As the sole IP counsel at the company, it looks like I’ll continue to have a fair amount of latitude to make decisions and organize my practice. The general counsel is expressly looking for someone won’t need to be micromanaged (or managed much at all, preferably). This is good.

I also expect to be taking on a bit of a training role; the company has hired some patent drafters who don’t have previous patent-drafting experience (which is not unusual – we’ve all got to start somewhere), and so I expect that I’ll be spending some time introducing them to the weird and wacky world of patent specifications. I’m excited for this – pedagogy is my jam. Teaching articling students and junior associates about various issues is one of my favourite parts of working at my firm, and it’s good to know that I’ll have an opportunity to continue that part of my practice.

The one thing that I won’t get to take with me is also the most personal. I’ve been blessed with some truly tremendous colleagues at my firm. I work with an amazing legal assistant, I’ve been mentored by some of the smartest and most experienced patent lawyers in the country, and I’ve forged close friendships with a number of my coworkers. These things are not entirely lost – I still know these folks, and I’m leaving the firm on good terms. But leaving brings distance, by definition. I fully intend to keep in touch via dinners, board game nights, and professional events, but these can’t replace the immediacy of walking down the hall and asking your friend out to lunch.

Still, I’m optimistic. The company seems to be full of great people, and I’ve been impressed by the folks I’ve met so far. It would be embarrassing to gush too much about people I’ve just met and am about to start working with (and, since there are reasonable odds that you are one such person – hello, it’s good to meet you! We should do lunch), but I will comment that I have heard only the most positive things about the company’s general counsel. I think she’s my kind of people, which is important because she will also be my boss. This was an important consideration in my decision-making process (which may or may not have involved tracking down other lawyers with whom she has done business and grilling them for character references – I am nothing if not thorough).

Making the Call

I obsessed for a month-and-a-half, and it was terrible – I deeply, truly disliked the process of distilling my thoughts, feelings, values, and predictions of the future into an action item. I am a big believer in the futility of chasing diminishing returns; obsessing over a problem can be helpful, but only if that obsessing is helping refine your ability to make a decision. Once you stop having new and useful thoughts, it’s time to pull the trigger.

That’s what happened here. I couldn’t think of anyone else to ask for insight, or any other data I might acquire to help inform my decision. Once I hit that point, it was like a weight lifted. I stepped back, asked myself “how do I feel about this decision right now?”, and found that I was pro-in-house. Just like that, in a moment, I went from uncertainty to certainty.

It is not by any means an overstatement to say that this was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. Way harder than deciding to go to law school in the first place. Way, way harder than proposing marriage or deciding to have a kid. But I’m confident that I’ve made the best choice that could be made, based on all the information that was available. There’s comfort in that.

My new company had better make it big, because I don’t want to do this ever again.