The Two Worlds of a Counsel

This article was first published in the Lex Witness July 2017 issue.

The turning winds of the Indian legal industry has brought in a wave of change in the dynamics and the roles of the in-house counsel and external counsels. Amongst those changes are the employment shifts in the industry which we see, wherein quite a few of in-house counsel, move into the private law firm practice. Ever wondered what is the magical fulcrum that keeps this ride moving? Or what could actually be the differentiators as the lawyer at work remains the same? Here’s an overview of what could possibly be the reds and greens in this very dynamism.

The Economics Behind – In-house legal teams are considered as talent asset investments. They are surrounded with driving factors like resource build up, team size, outsourced work to external counsel etc. and at the same time maintaining the business objective of the corporate. However, moving within a law firm changes that perception completely, and now the lawyer becomes a revenue generator. The pivot for the role changes towards the fee earner, and consequentially the increase in perks like salary and profit-sharing, bigger teams, traveling, expense account and more.

Professional Development and Networking – This again remains a key differentiating element between the two profiles. While the In-house counsel focus on purpose driven networking and development in terms of identifying the best possible talent, external counsel or maybe driving a lobbying driven industry initiative, the external counsel on the other hand focuses on opportunities that can further leverage the existing clientele, generate new business for the firm and most importantly keep a watch on the possible diversification that the firm can get into in terms of its service portfolio.

Growth Opportunities – The law firm structures are developed to encourage a lockstep career path. In a professionally structured law firm, plenty of growth opportunities are built into the track, from Associate through Equity Partnership. Glass ceiling is a rare concern in a multiple equity partnership model firm. On the other hand, an in house counsel has its own career path to be looked at in terms of journey from a level that one may join the corporate as upto becoming a General Counsel where there is an umbrella management of all legal & regulatory mandates in place within the corporate. Additionally, there now remains an opportunity to become an integral part of the board room as well.

Diversified Work Profile – Both the worlds have their own diversification scopes in place. Working within a law firm is that of being able to manage multiple client businesses across various industry sectors and practice scopes depending upon the advisory role the firm has been entrusted with. In an in-house role, this diversification purely depends upon the nature of businesses the company is into. While some have a multi-lateral business bucket and hence mandates of all kinds come in play, there are some that focus only on a particular sector but still have a complex nature of legal and regulatory hassles that come their way day in and day out.

Work Life Balance – The law firm life can be very taxing in terms of the number of billable hours, plus business development and pro-bono work hours that one is asked to put in. Work life balance can usually be better managed in an in-house role, versus that within a law firm.

Managing the Financial Pressures – Working in a law firm means you being under pressure to constantly bring business and grow your books, in order to justify your draw. This can add on to the psychological pressure of being a star performer in the inevitable rat race that is experience any law firm with an efficient Partnership model. While the In House Counsel face a different set of pressures as justifying themselves as cost centers to the management in terms of talent size, expenses on account of external counsel, advisors, vendors etc.

Is There a Better Pie At All?

It is indeed very difficult to generalize as to which remains the sweeter pie. It purely depends on the individual considering the switch. Your past profile, experience and opportunities in hand would essentially be the key factors that can ascertain what could be a better profile for you. Indeed, there are certain pre requisites that one has to be vigilant enough of before taking the plunge. Needless to say, it is a long terms bet that one would place while changing the side of the table as the role of an in house counsel vis a vis an external counsel would at least require a good investment of time and experience at work in order to take the next career move decision. It is always best to discuss amongst peers, self-introspect and weigh all personal attributes before making the move.

I am the Principal Consultant at the Lex Witness Strategic Counsel Desk, an invitation based initiative, which caters to various entities who seek to create and improve their brand and undertake market activation strategies in the Indian legal market space. Much beyond the space of the magazine, the Strategic Counsel Desk aspires to provide a holistic framework for the firm’s positioning and business growth, primarily focusing on the strength in the Indian legal industry.

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