Would you consider an in-house role?

Last week The Lawyer published a front-page photo of a female lawyer with the eye-catching headline that ’65 per cent of you want to be her’. 

Tim Bratton
Tim Bratton

That was one of several intriguing  statistics arising from research compiled by The Lawyer into the attitudes of private practice lawyers to their in-house cousins, and specifically whether private practice lawyers would like to work in-house instead of in a firm.

The Lawyer already did a deep dive on those statistics so there is no merit in repeating them all here. But it was the headline statistics in particular which caught my eye and which I think merit further attention. First, The Lawyer’s survey found that 68 per cent of all private practice lawyers “would consider taking an in-house role”.  Second, the survey found that 80 per cent of all associates “would consider taking an in-house role”.

What does this all mean?

Well it is easy to jump to the obvious conclusion that the private pratice business model is bust and associates now realise that. I admit to partially jumping to that conclusion myself at first and it reminded me of one of my early blog posts where I wrote about my experience interviewing associates looking for an in-house role in New York, just under 18 months ago.

Maybe there is a grain of truth in that, but that argument is too simplistic.  The truth is not that the model is bust, because it’s not.  But that as the gateway to partnership, let alone the hallowed equity, narrows year on year, I am willing to punt (this is not an evidence-led argument for all you evidencists out there) it is true to say that associate dissatisfaction is pretty high.

But alongside that conclusion, one also has to look at the question which was asked, and a hat tip is due to solicitor Ian Tucker and Richard Moorhead of Cardiff Law School for causing me to pause for thought a bit on this. The words ’would consider’ in the question are important and arguably undermine the ability to rely on any conclusions drawn from the survey data. I suppose I ’would consider’ any number of things suggested to me, but I might well decline to press ahead with most of them being a cautious lawyer type. I think The Lawyer could improve on an already fascinating study by making the question more specific in any repeat survey.

I’d also be interested in the answer to a different but possibly the same question. How many private practice lawyers (associates in particular) ’would consider’ leaving the profession entirely?  Or even more stark, how many private practice lawyers ’sometimes wish’ they had never become a lawyer in the first place? Again in the interests of a lack of evidence-based analysis, I’d punt that the answer to my first question would be similar to The Lawyer’s magical 68 per cent figure and that the answer to my second question might not be too far behind.

If I am right about the likely answers to my made-up questions, and I acknowledge that is a big if, then I would be very interested in the motivations of those private practice lawyers who expressed an interest in the in-house side of the profession.  Set aside the ’I want to be involved in the business’ cliché, why is this army of well paid (I’m assuming most respondents worked for large practices) professionals so keen to look over the other side of the garden fence?  Admittedly, the private practice lawyers interviewed for The Lawyer piece made the right noises about how they think life is actually more difficult in-house, its no longer for those who can’t hack it in practice and even – gasp – that you even find lawyers in-house who once worked for top City firms blah blah.  So are lawyers in firms looking over the fence because they genuinely believe it is more difficult and challenging?  Or is the reality that unhappy private practice denizens perhaps in reality think that the ’pat on the head’ sentiments expressed in The Lawyer are a load of old guff and that life in house offers a more pleasant and easier lifestyle than the one they are currently (not) enjoying?  Because if not, what is the point of considering a move in the first place?

Two final thoughts.

First, a whopping 53 per cent of the partners surveyed ’would consider an in-house role’. This statistic in itself possibly deserves a separate blog post. It certainly went contrary to my theory that the point of slaving for 10 years as an associate is that although you still have to slave for a further 10 years or more as a partner the rewards warrant it in a way they do not necessarily do for associates (disclaimer: do not think that last statement runs contrary to my theory in this earlier blog post!). Again, motivation here would be fascinating.  Have these partners earned enough to pay off the mortgage and school fees and are they willing to take a pay cut to try something else out in the last chunk of their career?  Or is the reality that life at the top of the firm does not quite match the hedonistic promise it has before you get there so they want to get out?

Second, if the fact that 80 per cent of associates ’would consider’ moving in house does equate to at least some degree of dissatisfaction with life in private practice, is that a problem?  Yes, it is for me.  Not just for the altruistic reason that we don’t want a profession full of unhappy lawyers.  But because more importantly, as any decent in-house lawyer knows, we need excellent private practice lawyers and, as I think I’ve said before, an unhappy lawyer does not usually make a good lawyer, or at least does not make a good lawyer a great lawyer. And we in-housers need great private practice lawyers for the reasons stated at the end of The Lawyer article – that the relationship between in-house and private practice lawyers “is a partnership in the truest sense”.

Congratulations must go to The Lawyer, which put together what I considered a really decent bit of research that has provided me and I am sure others with food for thought.  I would like to see that research go further and ask more binary questions and delve into the motivations for the answers given.

But what does it all mean?  Well, you will have to draw your own conclusions and throw in some assumptions like I have done.  But at a minimum I think it shows – yet again – that those at the top of the law firm tree still have work to do to ensure that their future – and more surprisingly their existing – partners are as happy as they might be.

Tim Bratton is general counsel at the Financial Times