For many years, in-house counsel jobs have been an attractive option for lawyers that want a better work-life balance than law firms provide.
But the less-taxing nature of legal department positions has increasingly been more perception than reality, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to legal professionals and industry consultants.
Nearly half of the 300 in-house lawyers who participated in an Axiom survey earlier this year reported being very or extremely stressed or burned out. Many cited increased workloads and more complex work as key factors contributing to their feelings.
Susanna McDonald, vice president and chief legal officer at the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), noted in-house attorneys' many duties in recent years have ranged from implementing evolving public health guidelines for workplace safety to possibly changing their organization’s supply chain due to sanctions.
“In-house lawyers have had a lot to juggle during the pandemic,” McDonald told Legal Dive.
Chief legal officers report they have picked up added responsibilities in recent years. When asked about 21 different business functions, more CLOs said they have direct oversight over 18 of those functions than they had in 2020, according to the ACC’s 2022 Chief Legal Officers Survey.
For example, almost one-quarter of 861 CLOs surveyed are responsible for environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, up nine percentage points from 2020, according to the ACC.
Additionally, 84% of chief legal officers say that they have at least some cybersecurity-related responsibilities, an increase of eight percentage points from two years ago, according to the ACC’s 2022 State of Cybersecurity Report.
McDonald said that while increased responsibilities sometimes come with greater resources, including personnel, that level of added support often doesn’t arrive until “a little later in the future.”
Along those lines, more than 40% of in-house lawyers in the Axiom survey reported that a core problem they face is not having the right amount of staffing bandwidth, and nearly 90% said their legal department has suffered from attrition-related issues.
Interest from younger lawyers
Meanwhile, other legal leaders highlight that the perception of a cushy in-house lifestyle has not been the reality even well before the pandemic.
However, the increasingly heavy workloads are not scaring away recent law school graduates from pursuing in-house opportunities, said Virginia Johnson, chief legal officer, general counsel and corporate secretary at Aspen Aerogels.
Young and eager lawyers who want experience in an array of disciplines view in-house counsel gigs as an increasingly attractive option, she argued.
“It’s not just the traditional legal advice or working on litigation or transactions,” Johnson said. “It’s also government affairs, data privacy, cybersecurity and governance. It’s things that really touch the business, such as enterprise risk or ESG. These are becoming career paths now that lawyers often take on.”
The pandemic has also contributed to an increasing number of older in-house counsel reassessing whether to retire or stay on. This could incentivize more young lawyers to enter the field, according to Susan Hackett, CEO of Legal Executive Leadership.
“There are people who are out there looking to step away from work and perhaps earlier than planned,” Hackett said. “That will not only create crises when it comes to expertise walking out the door but opportunities for newer, younger employees who are arising to see a path to promotion or to greater responsibility that wasn’t there two years ago.”
Additionally, in-house counsel jobs, in general, have offered attractive remote-work options.
Nearly two-thirds of in-house counsel report having schedules that include both remote and on-site work, according to a 2022 ACC and Empsight survey of more than 2,000 professionals.
But as law firms increase salaries and also provide opportunities to work from home, the apparent benefits of seeking an in-house position start to fade, according to Hackett.
“I think those changes you’ve seen in most law departments are very much the same for changes you’ve seen in law firms,” Hackett said. “Some people are doing really well and liking the more remote work options. Some people are now dissatisfied that there’s a sense that they have to go back to the office more frequently when they don’t feel there’s many rewards in it.”
Roughly 55% of in-house lawyers in the Axiom survey said they prefer a hybrid remote/in-person work environment, and more than one-third said the opportunity for remote work has become more important to them since the pandemic.
Pursuing new positions
Of those in-house lawyers who reported to Axiom they were very or extremely stressed or burned out, nearly seven in 10 said they would likely look for a new job within the next year.
Some 40% of those surveyed would consider moving to a law firm and 39% would go to a flexible talent provider. Roughly one-third (34%) said they would consider another in-house position.
Still, Mike Evers of in-house legal recruiting firm Evers Legal, is skeptical that the industry will see an exodus of in-house counsel moving back to law firms.
“For a number of lawyers, that eventual pressure to become a rainmaker will drive a lot of lawyers away from the law firm career path,” he said.
Evers also said he gets contacted daily by law firm lawyers who want to go in-house and noted the top drivers of attorney interest in working for legal departments are still the same despite increased workload during the pandemic.
“The main benefit of moving in-house, most in-house counsel say, is the joy of being part of a business and being part of a client team as opposed to being an outside service provider,” Evers said.