Recap: Going In-House or Private Practice

About the Speakers

In this insightful presentation, our speakers, Ryan Kretschmer and Andy Kvesic, shared compelling insights drawn from their rich and varied legal careers.

 

Progressing from a legal counsel role to ultimately becoming the General Counsel, and later transitioning back into private practice with Maynard Nexsen, Ryan’s path demonstrates an entrepreneurial approach to his legal career. With a history spanning both private practice and in-house roles, his diverse experience underscores the importance of a multifaceted background in shaping a comprehensive legal perspective.

 

Andy’s career trajectory painted a vivid picture of the versatility inherent in legal expertise. Transitioning from private law firms to public service, to general counsel roles in the public and private sector, and eventually ascending to his current role as Managing Partner at Radix, Andy’s journey illuminated the unforeseen yet rewarding paths a legal career can take.

 

Together, their experiences form a valuable resource of insights for legal professionals navigating their career landscape.

 

Each career pivot became a catalyst for significant personal and professional growth, emphasizing the potential embedded in navigating challenges. Their experiences are a testament to the impact strategic transitions can have on one’s legal career, serving not only as a remedy for stagnation but as a catalyst for continual advancement.

 

Common Misconceptions

A prevalent myth surrounding in-house legal roles is the perception that they entail fewer hours than their private practice counterparts. Contrary to assumptions, in-house positions can be equally, if not more, demanding than those in private practice. Drawing from their experience, both speakers underscore the relentless nature of the role, emphasizing that the demands persist beyond regular working hours.

 

A common misconception about private practice is that the autonomy offers a more structured and predictable work schedule compared to in-house. Some may assume that practicing in a law firm allows for a clear boundary between professional and personal life with the luxury of leaving work at the office. However, the demands of private practice can still spill beyond the standard 9-to-5.

Benefits

Freed from traditional billing hours and law firm politics, in-house General Counsel focus on substantial, high-quality work. Concentrating on a single client allows a shift from complex office dynamics, providing more time for work as well as exposure to the non-legal facets of business operations. This shift also means less pressure to market oneself and build a personal brand.

 

Conversely, those in private practice can benefit from extensive networking opportunities, since the focus of private practice extends beyond a single client. This provides opportunities and exposure across various industries and practices. There is also access to experienced mentors to provide guidance and resources like paralegals for support research.

Drawbacks

One notable challenge of in-house practice is the alignment of an attorney’s skill set with the company’s needs. Non-lawyers often assume that lawyers know everything, irrespective of their specialization. This expectation can lead to in-house lawyers being tasked with responsibilities outside of their expertise.

 

A downside of private practice is getting entangled in office dynamics that attorneys may find draining. For example, there can be internal discord such as disputes about compensation, bonuses, or origination credits. In private firms, there may also be the burden of engaging in obligatory interactions and networking with business relationships that aren’t necessarily of interest.  For this reason, finding the right law firm and understanding their approach to these matters is critical.

Exploring Key Dimensions: In-House vs. Private Practice

Practical Pros and Cons

In the realm of private practice, attorneys function akin to custom home builders, enjoying unparalleled autonomy to construct a legal career tailored to their preferences. The canvas is vast— the choice of clientele, practice areas, and work hours are at their discretion. However, the analogy draws a limit; much like building a house, the decision-making authority is confined to the construction phase.

 

Contrastingly, in-house legal roles are metaphorically living in the house. This immersive experience involves being an integral part of the business, yet it comes with the realization that decisions affecting legal aspects may be made by non-legal executives. This dynamic encapsulates a scenario where business leaders, analogous to homeowners, might make decisions that the in-house lawyer must align with, even if they’re unconventional.

 

The in-house role also demands complex risk analysis, requiring in-house attorneys not only to identify risks but also to assess the probability of occurrence, potential damages, and the company’s capacity to withstand those damages with a level of detail and knowledge that often is not expected from external counsel. Additionally, managing external legal costs is a critical responsibility, with in-house attorneys tasked with scrutinizing bills, managing budgets, and ensuring that fees charged by outside counsel are reasonable.

Ethical Considerations

Navigating ethical considerations as an in-house attorney becomes intricate, particularly in smaller organizations where in-house lawyers are part of the executive team.  As both counsel and an executive, in-house attorneys may be asked to weigh in on matters such as compensation structures, benefit and leave programs or other matters in which they may ultimately be a participant, resulting in the need to strike the delicate balance between providing requested advice and complying with their ethical obligations.  While ethical considerations are always present for lawyers in private practice, the nuances of being an attorney, employee and executive rarely arise for external counsel.

Economic Considerations

The traditional private practice pay structure is well-defined, featuring base salaries, bonuses, and significant earning potential for partners. This financial landscape tends to be linear with direct correlations between hours billed, revenue generated, and individual earnings.

 

In addition to the traditional firm structure, the Alternative Business Structure (ABS) model provides a groundbreaking opportunity for lawyers to partner with non-lawyers and grow their practice through innovative business offerings and new sources of capital. The ABS model often provides higher earning potential, creating a dynamic where practitioners directly reap the financial rewards of their efforts, contributing to a more entrepreneurial environment within the legal landscape.

 

In-house compensation, on the other hand, generally comprises a base salary, discretionary bonuses, and often, stock options. The inclusion of stock options serves as a powerful incentive, especially to attract legal talent from private firms.

 

Unlike law firms, where economic metrics are clearer, in-house attorneys may struggle to quantify their value to the company. This is particularly challenging if the legal department is viewed as a cost center rather than a strategic asset.  Furthermore, compensation models vary significantly from one company to the next, especially when comparing a role at a publicly traded company to a role at a privately held company.  Understanding the compensation structure and how it will apply to your role as in-house counsel is key when evaluating any in-house opportunity.

Long-Term Career Impacts

Private practice success is often synonymous with becoming a “rainmaker”—continually bringing in, and maintaining, high-paying clients. The foundation lies in building a robust client base and cultivating expertise over time, defining a flourishing career trajectory.

 

In-house lawyers navigate a distinct path, having one client—the company. Long-term commitments are often necessary, especially when stock options are involved. In-house roles also offer distinctive learning prospects beyond the legal practice such as collaboration with business leaders and delving into business operations.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, the legal landscape offers diverse opportunities, each with its own set of challenges and rewards.

 

Recognizing that the grass is not definitively greener on the other side, but rather, shaded with distinct complexities, underscores the importance of aligning individual career goals with professional choices.

 

Being honest with oneself about career goals and preferences is crucial. Different roles suit different individuals, and understanding personal priorities is essential for professional satisfaction.