Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Part II – Do I Want to Stay in Law?

In Part I of this series about the decision-making process that led me to quit law, I talked about how I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to gun for partnership at Simpson Thacher, in large part due to the fact that work/life balance for junior partners still stinks (as it does at all BigLaw firms) and it would have been an uncertain uphill battle for me to make it.

The logical next question was whether I wanted to make partner at a second-tier firm. Despite not loving drafting, a core task lawyers are called to do (as explained in the previous post, it would still be an attractive career option to work at a law firm if such firm provided work/life balance AND it were easy for me to make partner there.

I believe that work/life balance, for a corporate lawyer in New York City — even at a second-tier firm — is a mirage. Maybe such balance is possible at a second-tier firm in a second-tier city like Albany or Salt Lake City, but in New York, and for that matter in other top American cities like Chicago and San Francisco, the scale is going to tip largely towards work. Global hubs like Hong Kong, where one particularly busy year I billed a whopping 2,700 hours, can be as bad as or worse than New York.

Legal recruiters often tout that such-and-such firm “only” requires 1,800 billable hours. But billable hours and hours at the office are two very different things. For example in early 2008, when the market was slow, I had relatively light year in London, with many fewer Perpetual Wednesdays. However, there were times after a slow day or week at the office waiting for billable work when I got hit with a last-minute deal that required me to work all night or all weekend. So despite billing only 1,500 hours that year, I ended up being at the office over 2,000 hours. And the unpredictability meant I still couldn’t fix evening or weekend plans and tethered to the blinking red light of the Blackberry.

The nature of being a corporate lawyer is that you are on call for the partners, who in turn are on call for the clients. And big city clients tend to expect round-the-clock availability, often on short notice. So much for work/life balance.

I suppose I could have considered relocating to a smaller city working for a slower-paced firm, but that wasn’t an appealing option for me, given the work is less glamorous and such firms aren’t necessarily hiring in this economy, not to mention the fact that my husband’s work is based in New York City. (And I’ll admit that the idea of retaking the bar exam in another state didn’t exactly make me jump up and down.)

Even if work/life balance were achievable at a second-tier firm in New York, it would still be difficult to make partner as a lateral, especially in today’s economy. Firms generally only make a lateral a partner if such person can bring a portable book of business (i.e., valuable clients) or has a niche expertise that is in high demand.

It is rare for BigLaw associates to have their own clients — it is not as if I could convince KKR or Blackstone, the private equity giants who are Simpson’s top clients, to follow me. And as a lawyer focusing on general mergers and acquisitions transactions, I am hardly a specialist lawyer, unlike friends who focus on more exotic fields like derivatives or banking regulations.

While I do know senior M&A associates from Simpson or Davis Polk without their own clients lateraling to second-tier firms with the tacit understanding of becoming a partner after a year or two (as opposed to going in as a partner right away, as they might have in the good ol’ day before the recession), they usually went to busy firms with a shortage of junior partners or senior associates and were expected to be “workhorses,” working long hours to prove themselves. So, by definition, they would not have work/life balance.

I should note that I had already lateraled once, albeit from one top-tier BigLaw firm to another, I didn’t want to go through the experience again unless the merits (i.e., work/life balance and the ease of making partner) overwhelmingly surpassed the efforts required. Not that switching from Davis Polk to Simpson Thacher was bad, but it was taxing to have to continually prove myself, adapt to different partners’ work styles, and befriend new colleagues.

So that all is why I pretty quickly ruled out the option of lateraling to a second-tier firm. That’s how things looked to me, but I do recognize that my generalizations may not be accurate. In any case, remember the premise of this whole discussion is that I don’t love drafting.

Another well-trodden option taken by fellow BigLaw “escapees” is working as an in-house counsel for a company. I did look at several in-house positions and even interviewed for a few. I probably didn’t do as much in-depth due diligence on this option as I could have, and it’s even harder to generalize about companies given their variety, but I felt that I got enough information to conclude that I had some irreconcilable problems:

  1. In-house lawyers are not main players in companies. They are typically viewed as bureaucratic overhead rather than being at the company’s core. Sometimes, they can even be viewed by the business people as road-blockers. I didn’t want to play second fiddle.
  2. The precedent-setting and headline-grabbing deals are usually outsourced to law firms like Simpson Thacher and Davis Polk. Many in-house lawyers end up working on small-fry plain vanilla contract work or worse, compliance work. I know this is a gross stereotype, but it applied more often than I liked in the in-house positions I looked at.
  3. I prefer clear structure with hierarchies, which is one thing I liked about law firms. There is a clear chain of command — who has the authority to delegate and who has the final say on the work product. In-house departments tend to have flatter organizational structures, something legal recruiters like to present as good things. But in some organizations flat structures can be without clear delineation of responsibilities. That’s not necessarily a good thing, at least not in my book.
  4. If I were to go in-house, depending on the industry and size of the company’s legal department, career advancement might be slower. I would probably go in as a VP or an associate General Counsel. Promotion opportunities can be sporadic and reaching the next rung could take several years, in contrast to the annual ladder-climbing at law firms. Moreover, there is no assurance the company would not parachute in an external lawyer (often a partner) to be the General Counsel.
  5. The point above is relevant to compensation. In-house lawyers usually make less — sometimes as much as 40% less — than BigLaw associates. Unless the job or the industry is particularly exciting, the money just didn’t — and doesn’t — seem worth it to me. I know this may sound jarring to many, especially in the current economy, but I have my reasons, which I will explain in full in a subsequent post. Money is going to be a lengthy topic.

So, by this spring, I was working under the assumption that being a corporate lawyer is not my destined path, a scary and uncomfortable thought. I really didn’t want to face the discouraging thought that everything I had worked so hard towards was futile and that the next milestone was invisible. When I was young, a random palm reader exclaimed at how long my career line was on my palm. Was she wrong?

The subject of my next post will be how I dealt with the idea of quitting law.

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26 Responses to Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Part II – Do I Want to Stay in Law?

  1. Greg says:

    Wow. That’s all I can say is wow. You speak authoritatively about some things about which you clearly know nothing. To set the stage: I am a Big Law veteran in Boston who has been the GC of a mid-sized company for several years. To rebut your laughable statements in order:1. Yes, some people think I am a roadblock when I tell them they can’t do something. That’s part of the job, saving some business unit heads from themselves. It’s also why in-house counsel is so valuable. Instead of getting the call after something has gone wrong, often in a panic, you can prevent the mistake from being made in the first place. 2. I have managed every “headline grabbing” deal we have done here for the past 8 years, doing a lot of the work myself along with other members of my team. I do farm out some work, primarily litigation, but it is at my discretion when, if and how it is done. Any trusted GC can and does make this decision. It’s why partners at BigLaw are always sucking up to GCs and their team. 3. We have a very clear structure: I report to the President and the Board of Directors. The AGC reports to me, as do our paralegals and support staff. Can’t get a more direct chain of command than that. I don’t know of many legal departments where that’s not the case. Some do have a couple more layers of in-house titles: staff attorney, corporate counsel, senior corporate counsel and so on, up to AGC and GC. But again, there is always a clear chain of command. 4. Yes, you would have to work, in some cases for many years, to become the GC of any company. Did you really think someone is going to pluck an unknown associate to become their GC? If you were the CEO, wouldn’t you tap a lawyer that you had come to know and trust for years as your GC? Of course you would.5. This one is the most laughably ignorant of all. The GCs at top companies make the same if not more than their counterparts at top BigLaw firms. Check out the annual GC compensation survey from Corporate Counsel magazine. In addition, most public company legal team members get stock options. One friend of mine and his wife purchased a large home in an affluent Boston suburb for cash obtained from stock options. Try doing that on a paycheck from any BigLaw firm. In privately held settings, often the GC and other senior legal people participate in equity positions in deals. In many cases, this compensation structure makes BigLaw salaries look like an afterthought.

  2. everysixminutes says:

    Hi Greg: Thanks for the comments. You are coming from the perspective of a General Counsel, and as I wrote (and you yourself have noted), that was not a realistic option for me at this point in my career. Good for you that things have worked out for you as a GC.

  3. Kelly says:

    Whoa — looks like you touched a nerve or two for Mr. GC up there.

  4. T-Bone says:

    Greg, who are kidding. If you have THIS much time on your hand to write on someone else’s blog and bash on their PERSONAL PERCEPTION then you probably don’t sleep much considering you worked on so many “headline grabbing deals” and still have all this free time to roam the net.For someone who only works at a “mid-sized” company, you should toot your own horns a lot. Mommy didn’t give you enough attention??

  5. Another in-house perspective says:

    Your point of view is interesting. My view, however, is that the flatter in-house organizations actually means there is no “make work”. I don’t sit around waiting for something to be “billable”, avoiding bathroom breaks because it means I’ll have to stay late just that much longer, and have very flexible working conditions (I’m writing this from a Starbucks while wearing shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops, but I’m also at work.)Everything I do affects the company. As Greg indicated in-house counsel’s job is to prevent (or “roadblock” in your words) the illegal and even the just plain stupid. My company has just over 6,000 people capable of creating conditions for a lawsuit (otherwise known as “employees”) — it is because of in-house counsel that only a small fraction of that potential legal liability ever needs to get to outside counsel. The adage is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — a couple hours of my day prevents a hundred hours of yours. The valued in-house attorneys are those that work with the biz folks to create a solution that is viable from a business and appropriately manages the legal risk.And any mid-sized to large company has tons of corporate work going on all the time for someone who is truly qualified at the level you indicate. My litigation colleagues have managed about 90% of our litigation completely in-house over the past year (including our biggest wins); we also take point and do a lot of our M&A work in-house.OTOH, maybe this entire decision has nothing at all to do with practicing law per se, and your reasons are really just rationalizations to explain to friends and family that you want out? Because I certainly get that perspective, too …P.S. T-bone, your remarks of those of an ass hat.

  6. GC says:

    I read this post in the Corporate Counsel Daily Alert article and thought I’d respond.I am a public company GC and have been so for the past 8 years and in house for almost 15 years. I came in house from Skadden (I feel your pain on hours – I had a 3000+ hour year in the 1990s and ZERO life). Your comments are truly off the mark in today’s legal environment and highlight what those of us who procure legal services are seeing way too often – out of touch outside lawyers. Wake up. My key outside relationships have a completely different perspective than yours, which reflects quite poorly on your law firm training and experience. If I heard this from one of my firms, I would cease to do business with them. In my current and past GC roles, the legal department has been a key business and legal partner to its internal clients, with advice being sought, not bemoaned. This is even more true in the past 5 years but has been the trend for over 10 years. Our expertise and experience levels very often surpass our external counterparts and we have far more deal-making experience than many of our advisors. We most typically outsource matters for simple bandwidth issues, not for the expertise. I have managed my company’s deals and various other important aspects of its legal, compliance and business strategies. I think this is pretty typical for high quality legal departments today. Of course a senior associate or junior partner is not qualified for my job, but there are great opportunities to have tons of responsibility, work on very interesting matters and enjoy a dual business/legal role. Then good work, results and attitude may take you to the GC slot. That did it for me. As to reporting and pay – I report to the CEO and Chairman and get paid nicely compared to my outside peers. My total comp is probably more than most law firm partners, although it is lighter on cash and heavier on equity. Compensation aside, moving in house was the best thing I ever did.I wish you good luck.

  7. Greg says:

    @ Another In-House Perspecitve-Well said .

  8. CarolBee39 says:

    I’ve been where you are now, and your perceptions about the way it is ring remarkably true. If you need to get out, respect that need. Best of luck in finding what’s next.

  9. Greg says:

    @T-Bone-If you actually read my comments, you would note that I simply pointed out that her comments were not reflective of reality. The author made comments that sound authoritative rather than observational and I wanted to offer my perspective, as it is based in actual experience rather than anecdotal conclusions. I never attacked her personally as I have no knowledge of her as a person and consequently no cause to so do.In the future, you might want to skip the pop psychology. It does make you sound like an asshat

  10. Samantha says:

    Interesting personal perspective, but somewhat naive with regards to the role of inside counsel. I agree completely with Greg and GC. I have had the opportunity to work in three in-house law departments, each of which had very different cultures and workstyles, but none relegated non-GC’s to menial, repetitive tasks. I thought the myth that outside counsel did all of the sexy work and inside counsel were merely redlining confidentiality agreements was left in the 1980s. In fact, in house lawyers of all levels normally get to choose what stays in or goes out, and the work sent to law firms generally falls in the following categories:1. Sent outside because of inadequate staffing or bandwidth of the in-house team,2. Specialized work that requires a subject matter expert that is not available in-house,3. Rules check/benchmarking/ best practices review of work prepared in-house, and/or4. Bet the company work that is directed by a GC or in-house lawyer, but is handled by an outside firm as an layer of protection (C.Y.A.). Note that only rarely is an outside firm allowed to do what it wants without the direction of in-house counsel, and once those clients get the bill, that money tree ends right there. There may be additional categories that other posters can add to this list. I believe that the complexity of work handled inside has increased since companies realized that paying a outside lawyer $800/hour vs. paying a competitive salary and bonus to and employee that has a better understanding of the business and a real stake in the succesful resolution of a legal matter is a better value-add. The implication that in-house counsel (other than the GC) can only handle low-level scut work indicates a lack of experience and is quite insulting to the thousands of lawyers that work for companies, non-profits, government agencies, etc. Regardless, I too wish you luck in the next chapter of your life’s journey.

  11. T-Bone says:

    Asshat?? Hmmm…that is a new one, I’ll have to look that up in the dictionary of “Loser Comebacks”.

  12. Yet another in-houser says:

    Greg, Another In-house and GC have already summed up most of my reaction to your post, particularly the “whoa!” part. But there is one aspect which has not been mentioned yet, and that is that in-house work is fundamentally different from law firm work in that it is much more relationship-based. You need solid social skills as an in-house lawyer, and by that I don’t mean the show-off and politics skills valued in BigLaw. You write that in-house lawyers are typically viewed as bureaucratic overhead and even as road-blockers. Well, it is actually a large part of your job to change that perception. You need to convince your internal clients with solid business arguments (not with legal ones which they quite rightly don’t care about) that there is a good reason for your “no”. You need to make business decisions and show that you understand what is important to your clients, while not losing sight of the point when “no” really is the only option. Been there, done that, and the respect, support and collegiality I experience every day as a result is the most rewarding aspect of my job. Based solely on your comments here, I believe that you have made the right decision in not going in-house, albeit for reasons you did not even consider. I absolutely do not mean this as an attack or a judgment, and I respect your reasons. Different people are just suited to different occupations, and you do not appear suited to in-house. I simply did not want to let your post stand uncommented, so that other people facing the same decision get a fuller picture.

  13. everysixminutes says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments and the additional perspective. While I have worked with in-house counsel, I haven’t worked as an in-house counsel, so the first-hand experiences reported here are valuable.Having said that, there are some points worth clarifying in this discussion:

    1. “Yet another in-houser” hits the nail on the head in terms of the need for in-house lawyers to spend “a large part” of the job changing the perception that in-house lawyers get in the way rather than help business people achieve their goals. That is part of what I mean by “bureaucratic overhead”. To set the record straight, I don’t view in-house lawyers as “roadblocks” and didn’t say so in my blog. (In fact I agree with “Another in-house perspective” and other commenters that effective in-house counsel provides valuable service to prevent the illegal and the stupid.) What I did say is that in-house lawyers are sometimes perceived by the business people as roadblocks, which can be unfair. In thinking about my career, I recognized I was I lucky to have worked with clients with long-standing relationship with my firms who trusted and respected our advice without needing their perceptions of our roles changed — and I decided I didn’t want to apply my social and relationship-building skills to an in-house context where such persuasion may well be needed.

    2. I disagree with the suggestion in the comment from “Yet another in-houser” that BigLaw associates don’t have strong social or relationship-building skills (other than showing off or playing politics). I for one have had the chance to build good working relationships — and indeed friendships — with clients in BigLaw, and know many other associates and partners who have similar experiences.

    3. Greg and GC are general counsel, not mid-to-senior level associates going in-house at a lower level — so in many ways we’re talking about two different things, especially in terms of chain of command, the nature of the work in many cases, and pay (Greg Palm, GC of Goldman Sachs, made double-digit millions according to Above The Law (…. I have worked with some impressive GCs and CEOs and I think GC jobs are indeed great and the GCs themselves were huge assets to their companies. My point is that the multi-year path to getting to GC didn’t seem worth it for me personally, given the various reasons already noted so far in this ongoing series of posts. For those of you who’ve made this journey and found it rewarding, hats off and good for you!

    4. In response to GC’s comment that my perspective reflects poorly on my law firm training and experience: I think you are confusing my training and skills from my career preferences. Also, as noted above in the point about roadblocks, I suspect our perspectives aren’t actually that far apart.

    5. In terms of the nature of in-house work, I should have been clearer about industry-, legal speciality-, and indeed company-specific differences. In my case, I was an M&A lawyer, pretty much working exclusively on “bet the company” deals (as Samantha puts it in her comment), so it would have been harder than perhaps other fields of law to find equally exciting in-house work at a sub-GC level. In any case, it’s certainly possible that my view on this point — which I recognized in my blog might be a “gross stereotype” — was colored what I happened to see in the marketplace a few months ago.

    6. Contrary to the suggestion above from “Another in-house perspective”, this post is not a rationalization of my decision to quit law for my friends and family (who thankfully have been very supportive from the get-go); rather it is a rationalization for myself. As prefaced in the Part I in this series (, I am sure I have my share of after-the-fact justifications and internal contradictions, but it’s far more important to me to be honest with myself along the way as I seek to understand the motivation behind my actions than how I appear to others.

    Again, thanks for all the comments (other than the “asshat” name-calling bit) and keep them coming. Great if this blog turns out to foster fruitful discussions on these topics.

  14. another in-house lawyer IV says:

    I admire that, from what I have gleaned from scanning your blog, that you are out traveling and perhaps figuring out what you want to do next (career-wise). You are obviously a smart and capable person who will succeed at whatever you do. Perhaps after you are out of the game for a while, many of your notions about what you “require” in a law firm, or other law job, will change (not that I think you need to head back to law …). I find the following phrases incompatible and rather telling: “first-tier,” “second-tier,” “career advancement,” “hierarchy,” start as a “VP or associate general counsel” v. “work-life balance.” You are clearly very concerned with prestige (kudos to you for being so accomplished, etc.). When you let that go, maybe you’ll find something that meets your (adjusted) requirements. Or maybe you’ll get a movie/book deal from this blog. Maybe that’s the real dream for big law escapees.

    • everysixminutes says:

      Good point re. prestige. I do hope that I will not be so occupied with it one day.

      UPDATE: The issue of prestige is addressed more fully here.

  15. Wayne says:

    As a former law firm partner and current General Counsel, I agree with much of this post. The work that I did in private practice was much more sophisticated than what I do now. Yes I have become quite adept at redlining confidentiality agreements, serving as corporate secretary at board meetings, drafting company policies, etc. but that work is menial and much of it really doesn’t require a law degree. The other side of the equation is that as a partner at a prestigious law firm, I enjoyed the respect and admiration of my clients. At my company, even as General Counsel I am called to action by low level employees who demand immediate gratification to their requests. After all, I am their “company lawyer.” I do make as much money as I did in private practice, I don’t keep time sheets and I work approximately 60% of my former schedule. However, my level of intellectual job satisfaction clearly offsets the positives of the in-house job. As soon as the economy turns around I will go back to private practice.

  16. trinalc says:

    Wow, you really do have the wrong impression of what it is like to work in-house. Sure, there are lowly contract/compliance/junior positions, but for someone with a strong law firm background, great leadership and communication skills, good substantive practice, working in house is incredibly rewarding. Far from being pedantic roadblocks, we are true partners to our business clients; good in house lawyers are not seen as over-head, but rather contributors to the bottom line (offering solutions and other perspectives).As to “annual advancement”, at a law firm, you are just moving up a class – that is hardly a recognition of your merit! In a law department, your title may not change very often (organizations are often limited to 2 to 4 tiers), but as you gain experience, you gain greater authority and ever more sophisticated work. I have advanced from an AGC to a DGC in roughly 10 years – but the work that I do has advanced every year, which is how I measure progress.I also thought your comment about chain of command was off the mark, at least based on my experiences. As an associate in a major law firm, I was working for multiple partners, each of whom thought they were top dog. There was no clear chain of command. (All partners think they are chiefs.) By contrast, in a corporation, the reporting chain of command is absolutely clear – you report to your boss, your boss reports to his, and so on. (Of course, we have independent obligations to the board, and under law.)Finally, as others have pointed out, the days of “farming out” the sophisticated work to law firms is long gone. Sure we hire them to provide guidance and grunts, but the inhouse senior lawyer directs the strategy, makes the decisions – and it is to that person that the board and the CEO looks to for the legal advice, not to the outside partner. (I’ve worked on very significant deals where the CEO never even meets the outside partner.)I felt compelled to respond since your original post seemed so off the mark to me – didn’t want others to be discouraged from pursuing what I find to be a highly rewarding career as an in-house attorney.

  17. Greg says:

    Let me get this straight: you turned down in-house positions because they “usually make less — sometimes as much as 40% less — than BigLaw associates.” and “the money just didn’t — and doesn’t — seem worth it to me.”

    Instead, you prefer to be unemployed, jobless, with an income of 0$, mopping every day in your ivory tower about your alleged past glory.

    Right, that makes a lot of sense.

    • everysixminutes says:


      I’ve been giving you the benefit of the doubt but it seems you don’t read very well, or perhaps the topic is too touchy for you to think clearly.

      Your comment here is misleading. I never said I prefer to be unemployed; I’m on a journey to discover what’s next.

      Money was hardly the only or even a key reason for my decision; indeed it was one of five reasons I decided against in-house positions.

      And even your quotes from this one point about money are tendentious, failing to reflect my explicit note that discussing money properly will be for a later post. As I wrote: “Unless the job or the industry is particularly exciting, the money just didn’t — and doesn’t — seem worth it to me. I know this may sound jarring to many, especially in the current economy, but I have my reasons, which I will explain in full in a subsequent post. Money is going to be a lengthy topic.”

    • Hannah says:

      That must be a lot of mopping! Moping Greg, not mopping!

      Everysixminutes – I am always in awe of people that have the strength to admit ” this doesn’t make me happy anymore” and I on the whole support anyone who then make radical changes as the result of that realisation.

      Presumably everyone here used to work in BigLaw and now work in-house felt dissatisfied or underwhelmed by some aspect of their experience when compared with future possibilities. The fine detail is all yours and I’m not sure it’s appropriate for anyone of us to comment on others’ perceptions which are tantamount to personal realities.

  18. Greetings, this is a genuinely absorbing web blog and I have cherished studying many of the content and posts contained on the web site, keep up the outstanding work and desire to read a good deal more stimulating articles in the future.

  19. Time for a career change. Perhaps you will do bigger and better things than ever before. Maybe you will start something. And I don’t mean a law firm.

  20. Hailey A. says:

    You’re such an inspiration. I love this blog!

  21. Colin says:

    Ha, the GC doth protest too much.

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