Crossing the Bridge Back to a Top Law Firm From In-House

I find that many of the in-house attorneys I advise are unaware of the growing number of opportunities that exist for a return to a premier law firm corporate practice. In today’s legal market, crossing the bridge from an in-house role back into a top law firm is becoming much more common (and lucrative!). In this post, I’ll share the legal market mechanisms that have made these transitions increasingly popular as well as the ways in which in-house corporate attorneys can best take advantage of this potential path.

Legal Market Mechanisms

The first market mechanism to note is the greater supply of experienced in-house lawyers in today’s legal talent market. Historically, law firm corporate associates would typically go in-house sometime between their 5th and 8th year out of law school. But over the last decade or so, these law firm associates have been transitioning in-house much earlier, often between their 3rd and 6th years. There are a few reasons for this shift. Firstly, in-house legal departments are now endeavoring to build up their teams in an effort to cut down on their ever-growing expenditure on outside counsel. Secondly, mid-level and senior law firm associates’ compensation has dramatically increased in the last 10 years and in-house legal departments are having trouble competing for these senior candidates in terms of compensation. As a result, legal departments have been tapping into the law firm junior corporate associate pool.

The second market mechanism of note is the greater demand from law firms for experienced in-house lawyers. Law firms have been expanding the pool of counsel and junior partners as more firms have either moved to a two-tier partnership or increased the use of the counsel designation in single-tier partnerships. These roles are turning out to be particularly well-suited for in-house attorneys, who usually develop a strong business acumen and a valuable client-side perspective while in-house. Such experience has become especially valuable compared to the mostly transactional, execution-based experience developed in a law firm practice. Accordingly, law firms have now become progressively more open-minded about considering in-house attorneys, whose career trajectories align well with the expanded availability of counsel and junior partner roles.

In-house attorneys that do realize a return to a law firm is a viable option should also recognize the short-term benefits and long-term upside of the transition. In-house lawyers will typically experience an immediate and significant bump in compensation when re-joining a law firm. Also, for in-house attorneys who still feel their long-term legal career goals lay in-house, but who find themselves in a stagnant position (often with respect to promotions, work sophistication, and compensation), going back to a firm is an opportunity to level up their resume, expand their rolodex, and raise their salary—better positioning them for the more senior in-house roles down the line that they may have felt were previously beyond their grasp. Lastly, many features of law firm culture (including billable hours requirements, work-from-home flexibility, and internal dynamics) have continued to evolve such that the top law firms have found ways to make staying at a law firm long-term, or re-joining a law firm after a stint in-house, much more palatable and beneficial than it used to be.

Where Have They Gone?

There’s a great variety to the paths I’ve helped in-house lawyers plot back to law firms, some of which include:

  • A private equity fund counsel returns to a law firm as a partner after spending 7 years in-house.
  • A managing director at an investment bank returns to a law firm as a partner after 3 years in-house.
  • A REIT counsel that left a lower-ranked law firm as a 5th-year goes back to a top 20 law firm as an 8th-year with a clearly defined path for advancement.
  • A chief compliance officer returns to a top 10 law firm in a well-compensated counsel position.
  • A securities counsel for a public company who went in-house as a 5th-year goes back to a top 20 law firm in a counsel role as a 9th-year.
  • A 3rd-year M&A associate leaves a firm for just 2 years of in-house experience at a manufacturing conglomerate before heading back to a law firm.

All of these transitions required a costs and benefits analysis by the attorney, and there is no “perfect” or “correct” way to go about crossing the bridge back to a law firm. The takeaway here is that it’s prudent for attorneys to be open-minded and to know and consider all of their options in the evolving legal talent marketplace.

Legal Recruiter Relationships

An experienced legal recruiter can provide crucial assistance to an in-house attorney trying to evaluate and negotiate a law firm offer. Notably, class year designation, title, and partner track eligibility are often key negotiating points for law firm offers to in-house attorneys. A good legal recruiter will be able to advise an in-house attorney on whether their offer is above, at, or below current market standards for these variables, enabling the attorney to negotiate accordingly. Also, helping attorneys achieve an understanding of practice area demand, compensation parameters, and law firm structure and culture, is another incredibly valuable function of an experienced legal recruiter.

I’ll also suggest that it is crucial to work with a legal recruiter who spends a substantial amount of time on both in-house and law firm opportunities. A legal recruiter with knowledge and data points of both the in-house and law firm legal hiring markets will be best positioned to advise an attorney on how to evaluate the various windows of opportunity that might be open.

The path back to top law firms from in-house legal departments has gone from lightly-treaded to well-trodden within the last decade. An in-house attorney with a desire to move back to a law firm will find that with the aid of the right legal recruiter they can successfully identify the best timing for the jump and the best law firm platforms available for their career growth. Legal recruiters of the past may have neglected the opportunities and desire for such a transition, but the modern legal market is now keeping the law firm bridge firmly intact.

Bryan Curry is a Partner at Empire Search Partners. To learn more about Empire Search’s law firm and in-house legal recruiting, visit our Legal Recruiting Services page. To see Empire Search’s featured in-house and law firm job opportunities, visit our Featured In-House & Law Firm Jobs page.