Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Sheila Murphy
September 5, 2022

Should I stay, or should I go now?
Should I stay, or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay, it will be double
So come on and let me know
This indecision's bugging me 
If you don't want me, set me free 
Exactly whom I'm supposed to be
Don't you…

(The Clash)

If I did not know better, I would think the Clash was an intelligent lawyer considering a career jump. A few years ago, that type of thinking was only about jumping to in-house. Today, however, with the rise in law firm salaries, I see more in-house counsel thinking of going back to firms. 

Why intelligent?

Because lawyers should not consider these career changes without carefully reviewing the upsides and downsides.

So, what should you know or think about when contemplating the move?


You need to understand why you are thinking about moving in-house and what you are going to gain by doing it. If you want to leap because you want to be a pure lawyer and not have to worry about client development, billing, or other non-lawyerly tasks - think again. While different non-lawyerly skills are needed to have a thriving in-house career, they are still non-lawyerly skills, i.e., communication, partnership, solutions oriented, managing finances, and developing talent. All the time, I coached in-house counsel who were frustrated that being an excellent technical lawyer was not enough for success. On the other hand, if you are interested in helping a business grow and identify and mitigate risk, in-house may be a good move for you.

The Ceiling

If you think making partner is difficult, ascending in-house is just as complex and, in many cases, more so. There may be little room to move in small house departments, and in larger departments, there are more opportunities, but many people vying for the same position. You may need to make some lateral moves in a matrix organization (if you don't know what that means, you will also need to learn a ton of corporate jargon).

The Market May Change

There is a hot market for both inside and outside attorneys, but that can shift. So if you plan to go to or stay at a law firm and bank the cash and then go to or return to an in-house department, that may not be as easy as it seems. And if the market does switch, law firms will value more those attorneys who have demonstrated an ability to generate business.

And that does not happen overnight. So even in this market, you should be playing a long game and working on developing the proper connections and professional profile to either build a book of business or open doors to in-house roles. 

Opportunities for Development

In-house law departments generally are more interested in developing associates and giving them broader experiences. Some of this is necessary if the department is small, and some are by design; law departments understand that different and varied experiences make for more robust lawyers who are better positioned to advise business partners. Many of my in-house colleagues and I often discuss the tremendous amount of growth you experience very quickly just by the exposure you receive. The one caveat is law departments, in my opinion, are not as well equipped to train newly graduated attorneys. Law firms are much better at this. So think about where you are developmentally before you jump.

Feedback and Meritocracies

Corporations want you to develop -- so you will receive tons of feedback -- and not just on your lawyering skills. I have had many law firm refugees tell me that being at a law firm did not prepare them for the amount and quality of feedback they received. It is necessary for growth in-house but can be jarring at first. Also, many corporations consider themselves meritocracies and rate and pay associates on a curve. These performance review systems can again be harsh to the ego, especially those attorneys moving from a law firm environment.

Administration and Management

In-house has more administrative tasks than you can imagine or want. These chores include reviewing bills, managing finances, reports, and more reports. In addition, you may need to navigate bureaucracies and corporate politics. If you want to be a pure lawyer, you will not love the number of in-house administrative tasks, and failure to excel at them can impact your growth and compensation.

Also, the more you rise, the more critical your management and leadership skills are to advancement. Your lawyering skills will not get you promoted. 

I have never regretted my decision to move in-house - it was the right career move for me. This does not mean it is the best place for everyone.

If you are thinking of moving to either a law firm or a company, consider the items I mentioned and leverage your network. Reach out to folks and talk to them about their experiences -- not all in-house law departments and law firms are the same.

These discussions will help you decide if the move is right for you and what type of law department would be the right cultural fit for you.


Want to learn more about how to become the in-house leader you are meant to be?

Check out Sheila's 10 Tips for In-House Counsel Struggling to Advance.

In this guide, Sheila shares her time-tested tips for in-house counsel to release fear, jump-start your career, and propel towards promotion.

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