Swimming Upstream: From In-House To Law Firm

Lawjobs.com Career Advice_In House to Law Firm

I love variety. It’s what makes daily life as a recruiter interesting. In my earlier blog, I discussed the traditional journey of going from a private law firm to an in-house position. In this column, we explore the opposite track–going from an in-house position to a private law firm. While it doesn’t happen often, it occurs enough that the topic warrants exploration for those in-house lawyers considering the move.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a corporate attorney (let’s call him “Al”) at Big Law. Al joined their Miami office from an in-house position. In my recruiting world, anyone who fled a law firm for an in-house job NEVER went back to private practice. Once free of the billable/business shackles, they effortlessly rode the downstream current, basking in the ability to do their job without accounting for increments of their time or building a client base. They loved coming to work, doing their job(s) and going home. That said, let’s take a closer look at Al’s career path.

To put things in perspective, at the time he graduated from law school, only two years after  2008 (a watershed for hiring), the market offered Al very limited law firm opportunities. By chance, a recruiter placed Al in an hourly position at the Boston office of a major brokerage house where he was responsible for reviewing and analyzing contracts. Al remained “on the job” for a number of years and rose through the ranks. In 2014, he came home to Miami–while still working with the same company in their South Florida office. He was grateful to have a job–but at the same time–there was a gnawing feeling that he wasn’t achieving his larger career goals as a corporate attorney.

Over time, his responsibilities increased, and he focused almost all of his efforts on credit swap exchanges, a very narrow subset of corporate law. To Al’s credit, he survived rounds of company layoffs after he moved to Miami. In 2015, he joined his current firm after starting there on a temporary basis. He offered six reasons why he switched to private practice:

  • 1. He was pigeonholed in his in-house role and concerned about such granular specialization (i.e.: credit swaps).
  • 2. He wanted exposure to a wide variety of legal matters including M&A and general corporate transactions.
  • 3. His company simply didn’t have the platform to expand his legal experience beyond what he was doing.
  • 4. He knew staying would decrease his overall long-term employability.
  • 5. He took a risk by leaving his full-time in-house job to obtain his current job on a temporary contract basis. Due to his hard work, he developed it into a full-time associate position.
  • 6. He felt it was his responsibility to “manage his own trajectory” in his career and that he had to be proactive in his efforts. No one was going to do the “heavy lifting” for him.


He also shared six key questions an in-house lawyer should honestly ask themselves before making a change to private practice:

  • 1. “How much am I learning at my job?”
  • 2. “How much realistic opportunity is there for me to progress at my job?”
  • 3. “How often will I be doing the same work over and over again?”
  • 4. “Am I building a solid foundation for my career?”
  • 5. “How stable is my company?” (Remember: Al was lucky to survive rounds of layoffs)
  • 6. “Do I want to have more control over my destiny by building a practice and having a wide range of experience?”

As we concluded our call, Al reminded me that, for him, making the move to a law firm gave him a sense of accomplishment. He had always wanted to start his career at a firm, but the market forces weren’t as accommodating. He took a longer route to accomplish his goal, but he maintained a positive attitude the whole time.

Al is acutely aware that sometimes work comes before life and sometimes life comes before work. No matter what, he said, for an attorney who is relatively new in their career, they “may have to give now to get later”. He encouraged anyone thinking about making a similar leap not to lose hope and to keep their focus on the end game: doing what they love and making achieving that a priority. For him, the journey to private practice took longer than he anticipated, but in the end, it was absolutely worth it.

I trust this article, and Al’s advice, will be helpful. So if you are going to swim upstream, we both wish you the best of luck!

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Joseph E. Ankus, Esq.



Ankus Consulting, Inc.

[email protected]