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ANALYSIS: Should New Attorneys Look for In-House Openings First?

April 21, 2021, 9:01 AM

Most law students do not consider beginning their careers within an in-house legal department, instead opting for law firm positions. But perhaps this preference for law firms over in-house should be reconsidered.

After all, results from Bloomberg Law’s Attorney Workload and Hours Survey show that junior attorneys tend to fare better in corporate legal departments than in law firms from a well-being perspective, reporting higher job satisfactions and lower burnout rates.

While entry-level in-house positions are few and far between, there are ways that interested students can set themselves apart, thereby increasing their chances of landing one of these limited positions.

In-House Lawyers Are More Satisfied, Work Less

The first-quarter 2021 version of the survey asked lawyers about their experiences regarding job satisfaction, workload, and their personal well-being. According to the survey, more than half of lawyers are satisfied, choosing 7 or higher when asked to rate their job satisfaction on a scale of 0–10. When the responses are broken down by organization type, more than two-thirds of in-house lawyers are satisfied (67%), compared with 57% of law firm lawyers. As for the newest lawyers, 81% of in-house lawyers with one to seven years of experience are satisfied—much higher than the 51% of law firm lawyers with the same experience who say the same thing.

The survey data also tells us that in-house lawyers work fewer hours per week than law firm lawyers, on average (51 hours versus 54 hours). And, importantly, in-house lawyers with 1–7 years of experience report a lower burnout rate than their law firm counterparts.

The survey data suggest that law students interested in being more satisfied, working fewer hours, and feeling less burnout (so, most everyone?) should consider whether forgoing the law firm paycheck for an in-house opportunity is the answer.

An Alternate Path to Job Satisfaction?

Traditionally, the majority of law school graduates begin their legal careers in law firms. While there are fewer entry-level in-house opportunities available to graduates, this is not the only reason firm careers are more popular. The on-campus recruiting process at law schools often promotes law firm experience by heavily favoring law firm opportunities. The high compensation that is typically paid by law firms also tempts those students who have high law school debt. And, the desire to work with multiple clients can attract students who are interested in working in broader and more diverse practice areas.

But with 40% of law students reporting symptoms of depression after three years of law school (compared with 10% who report symptoms when entering law school), law school graduates and new attorneys may want to re-evaluate these reasons and focus their attention on in-house opportunities that appear to better support well-being.

Of course, lawyers can’t choose in-house options that they don’t know about or don’t exist. So law students should discuss with their office of career services their interest in in-house positions and ask for increased recruiting and hiring opportunities to be made available.

Tips for Students & New Attorneys

Here are some tips that law school graduates and new attorneys can follow when looking for an in-house opportunity:

Seek out internships. Actively seek out internships with in-house departments. But don’t stop there. Look to connect with lawyers working at in-house legal departments and take advantage of folks within your personal network that work with in-house legal departments. They can help point you to opportunities you might not be aware of.

Go small. Look for small start-ups or in-house legal departments that have a history of hiring law school graduates or new attorneys. They may have unposted opportunities or may even create a position once they hear you are interested in working for them.

Consider business programs. Consider earning a joint legal and business degree, take business-related courses, or participate in business-adjacent activities or organizations to set yourself apart from your peers.

Get relevant experience. Take advantage of opportunities to develop practical legal skills during law school. Consider clinics or volunteer opportunities focused on skills that would be useful in-house.

Polish your resume. Make sure your resume reflects the requirements of the in-house job description and highlights any business experience. Research and highlight your knowledge and understanding of the industry.

Conclusion

April is Stress Awareness Month and is a great reminder for law students to consider well-being when evaluating career paths. Remember, job satisfaction, workload, and personal well-being are not exclusively linked to whether you work as an in-house counsel or law firm attorney. But it is important to consider these factors before deciding which career path is the right choice for you.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our In Focus: Legal Operations page, In Focus: Lawyer Development and In Focus: Lawyer Well-being.

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