Career Reflection During the Pandemic: Private Practice v. In-House. What are you better suited for?

Career Reflection During the Pandemic: Private Practice v. In-House. What are you better suited for?

27 April, 2020

By: Orit Sinai, Recruitment Partner at ZSA
Another week during the pandemic has passed and a big congrats goes out to you!  It isn’t easy working from home, away from our colleagues and miles away from Bay Street. I miss my ZSA work family dearly, the underground path, my Starbucks coffee dates and Thursday celebratory drinks with all the candidates who I assist in finding their dream job. We are almost there folks, I can feel it. We will be saying goodbye to our comfy clothes soon enough, as some provinces plan to start easing physical distancing restrictions in May.

WHY an In-House Opportunity?

I am sure that the pandemic has given us a lot more time to reflect on our career, our aspirations, and future. I am accustomed to receiving numerous calls a week from impressive lawyers asking me to find them the perfect in-house opportunity, yet over the last month those numbers have exponentially increased. My response is always the same – WHY? Here are the reasons I receive:

  • I want to become a trusted business advisor
  • I am looking for  work-life balance
  • I am tired of docketing
  • I don’t want to be on the partnership track and have zero interest in being a rainmaker
  • I don’t want to juggle multiple clients and competing demands
  • I want to be a Generalist
  • I want to eventually get into a non-legal role
  • I want long term lucrative stock options, pension, RRSP
  • I want to join a FinTech (pre-IPO ideally), a casual environment is highly appealing

These are all admirable goals, but it is impossible to generalize that all in-house positions offer the utopian work environment you are seeking; however, undoubtedly, there are some incredible opportunities that will tick all the boxes. All of my candidates are extremely happy with their decision to leave private practice, but that came after careful thought and execution. The reasons vary, but the best advice I can offer is to be selective. From my experience, the impetus to transition to an in-house role is often linked to the pursuit of one’s long term goal of being part of the senior management team and becoming a core part of the business.  From first hand experience, there are certainly lawyers who were not just made for such a transition, but thrive once moving in-house.

Advice from the Experts

I turned to two close confidants of mine to share their stories of transitioning to an in-house role: Fernando Garcia, Vice-President Legal and General Counsel at Cargojet and Rick Da Costa, Vice- President, Senior Assistant General Counsel at Zurich. If you haven’t heard these names before, I highly recommend you look them up. These two are incredibly bright, ambitious and hard-working legal professionals who are excelling in the in-house world.
Fernando is often called upon to offer advice to lawyers who are debating an in-house move. His story  is quite unique as he started his career in private practice as an employment and labour expert. Fernando always loved the law, had a sincere passion for Human Resources, labour relations, and general business. He used his employment background to land him his first role in-house as General Counsel and Director of Human Resources at Navistar Canada. Within months,  he became involved in so many areas  of the business. His advice is always to rely on your expertise to get your foot in the door and then expand your knowledge of the business once you are in the hot seat. He is incredibly happy with his decision and has never looked back.
“The beauty of in house, you will have the opportunity to deal with it all: HR, corporate governance, M & A, real estate, litigation matters and every single day is so different and so exciting! It is all about wearing different hats, sitting on multiple committees and juggling multiple tasks. If you are looking for a challenge of not knowing what tomorrow will hold, then in-house is a great fit for you. Yet, if you want a more comfortable gig, stay in private practice. When you are in private practice, you get called in, to fire fight: you give advice and you move on. But in-house, you are part of the acclimation, you adopt the solution and see it through in the organization.”
Rick explains that he loves where his career has taken him, but the transition was certainly an interesting one:
“For me, one of the hardest aspects was transitioning to a company, in the traditional sense – where a lawyer is not the centre of, the company’s universe. You go from an environment where everything is structured to make you most efficient – since your time is the only thing the firm sells – to a company where you are a support function not generating any revenue directly. Very quickly, you have to figure-out how you can best support the business to achieve its goals in an environment that is not organized around you. Also, you have to adjust to working in an environment where people are not paying for your time by the hour. Practically, this means you get requests for “everything under the sun” – a lot of which you should really not be helping with. You need to learn to triage early and divert work where appropriate. You need to learn to focus your time most efficiently so as to not create operational waste for the company.”

Important Differences to Consider

It is highly inaccurate to assume that law firms are somehow the lesser of employment options for lawyers, so I thought I would remind you of some of the amazing aspects of private practice:
Economic Stability. Law firms have been around for decades, some for over a century. These firms are not going anywhere, even in a bad economy and a pandemic. This is especially true for full-service law firms. Law firms are built for survival in even the toughest economy.
Mentorship, Training and Development. Law firms offer the type of training that will ensure that a lawyer’s skills develop at the appropriate pace.
Resources. At a firm, you will have access to an abundance of precedents and legal resource tools, including access to highly specialized lawyers in different practice areas.
Subject Matter Expert.You become an expert in a specific area of law while working at a law firm, whereas in-house, that may very well not be the case.
Business Development. Law firms invest in you and your business development efforts. The world if your oyster. They offer you a platform to succeed, the resources you need and will bend over backwards for you and your clients.
Lucrative Compensation. Associate and partner level paychecks can be staggering and it feels great to get compensated for all of your hard work. Although during the pandemic, some folks have unfortunately taken a haircut on salary – remember that this is temporary!
Court Room Experience. This lack of hands-on practice may not be the best option for those lawyers eager for courtroom experience, as most in-house opportunities heavily rely on external counsel for litigation matters.
Counsel Roles/Flexibility. Most law firms have now created Counsel and non-partnership track roles, so if work-life balance is what you are after, ensure to speak with your firm about it. We have noticed that our law firm clients are increasingly amenable to flex-time, reduced hours, or telecommuting situations for valued lawyers.
In short, it is simply incorrect to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. There are endless distinctions to be made between private practice and in-house opportunities. Use this unprecedented time to think long and hard about  your professional goal(s).


I encourage lawyers considering a career change to reach out to us to discuss specific opportunities that are best suited to your particular needs, wants, and skill-set. Try to avoid preconceived notions when making the decision of staying in private practice vs. going in-house. Perhaps finding the right law firm and building your portfolio in private practice may be the best fit.
At ZSA, we are all about success stories of our clients and candidates and want to ensure your long-term career decision is calculated and well-thought out. Individual jobs vary and each role has its own benefits and will require different skill-set and EQ to excel.
If, after considering the differences, you are confident that an in-house role is right for you, the time to start planning is now. We can help you find the right environment that will enable you to thrive.
Stay in good health and spirits, I know this time is tough.

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