Minority women are exiting BigLaw. According to some reports, eighty-five percent of minority female attorneys in the U.S. will quit large firms within seven years of starting their practice.
These days, the image of an all-white, male partnership at a law firm, sitting behind mahogany desks with a nautical office motif is so far from reality, it’s laughable. Or is it?
According to a November NALP press release, at just 2.55 percent of partners in 2015, minority women “continue to be the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level, a pattern that holds across all firm sizes and most jurisdictions,” reports the ABA Journal.
There is a variety of reasons minority women are disappearing from BigLaw, and one of those reasons is competition from in-house counsel positions.
Tiffany Harper, esquire, transitioned from law firm life to a post as associate counsel for Grant Thornton in Chicago, for example. She co-founded Uncolorblind, a diversity blog and consulting company after having worked in corporate bankruptcy and restructuring at Schiff Hardin. Her last position was at Polsinelli as in-house counsel, where she looked to broaden her skill set.
“I didn’t see a path for me to partnership at a large law firm. For women of color, there has to be a synergy for you to make partner,” said Harper to the ABA Journal.
“You have to have everything working in your favor at the time you go up for a vote: a practice group that is thriving, the billable hours, people singing your praises, a client base. That has to all come together for you in a way it doesn’t have to for other people.”
But a power shift from large law firms to in-house counsel departments is on the rise for everyone, not just minority women.
“From demands for discounts, using online auctions to select firms, hiring law grads straight out of school, or simply moving more legal work in house, general counsel are pushing back on their outside lawyers,” reports the WSJ Law Blog.
Surprisingly, where salaries for lawyers have generally declined with the economy, compensation of in-house counsel has increased. Where BigLaw is dominated by the same type of person, in-house positions are more diverse in their human resources.
In one survey, 22 percent of in-house counsel are earning more than $300,000 per year in salary, bonus, and other compensation, which is a rise of 16 percent from the previous year, and 57 percent since the previous decade (via WSJ Law Blog).
Casey Flaherty, former in-house counsel at Kia Motors America, says that “in a data-rich world, there’s no reason law departments can’t track diversity using their standard outside counsel management software to establish baselines and measure improvement, just as a law department might track a firm’s efficiency and cost-effectiveness.” That’s why hiring decisions for in-house counsel positions are base don something more:
“Diversity is certainly one of the primary factors you should be considering,” said Flaherty to Law360.
“If you’re not, then it isn’t a priority, and who cares what’s in your policy statement? Who cares if you’ve formed a task force? … To me the diversity discussion and the metrics discussion are the same discussion: What are we prioritizing, and how are we measuring?”
So, if you’re planning a career shift (or have already taken advantage of the recent trend) toward in-house, below you’ll find a few tips for success.
If you’ve changed from a large law firm to corporate counsel, ViXS Systems Inc. general counsel Cheryl Foy emphasizes the importance of learning about the culture of the company you’re working for, including a comprehensive understanding of the needs and challenges of its business.
“Figure out who you’re working with. It’s folly to go in with the idea that ‘I’m the lawyer’—people will argue with your legal opinion. You have to build credibility so assess the culture first,” says Foy (via Canadian Lawyer Magazine).
In addition, don’t let a power shift in industry dynamics translate to a shift in power at your new position.
When Foy found herself in a situation in a previous in-house job where she wanted to be part of the executive team but wasn’t regarded as such, she received this advice: “You need to be acting like you’re at the table already,” (via Canadian Lawyer Magazine).
Make it clear on hire that a position as in-house counsel is one of management and decision-making. Act like a leader from the outset and you’ll be considered one in-house.
Finally, to fully understand the ins and outs of in-house counsel, remember there’s a big difference between big law practice and a position as in-house corporate counsel.
“Adapt a communication style that reflects that your audience has changed,” advises David Allgood, executive vice president and general counsel with the Royal Bank of Canada (via Canadian Lawyer Magazine).
“Remember it’s the enterprise who is your client now.”
And, with a new 40-60 hour workweek (instead of 60-80 in BigLaw), who can complain about that?