November 01, 2008

E-Discovery Career Choices: Know the Operational Differences Between Corporate Departments & Law Firms (& Vendors Too!)

Deena Coffman, Discovery Director at Johnson & Johnson, offers a comparison for E-Discovery staff between large corporate law departments and law firms. I've read these types of articles before, which usually focus on the pros and cons of the positions and other likely fodder. However, Deena presents candidates with much-needed insight into both the stark and subtle differences between corporate legal and law firm approaches to evaluating projects, investments, and managing careers. While this isn't a "grass is greener" article per se, I'd say the "Your Agenda" section at the end tends to pitch the corporate side's benefits a bit more, which leads me to perceive this as a recruiting vehicle.

With that aside, she puts forth a fairly straightforward comparison of how both types of organizations operate, consider project proposals, manage headcount and workload, and the types of experience one would obtain at each. She did a superb job of describing the difference in how corporate legal departments are often perceived across a company (as opposed to law firm practice groups), and discussing the more subtle effects of political capital.

I too have had career-enhancing experiences with both a Fortune 50 legal department and a large national law firm. For E-Discovery professionals evaluating their career choices, it is a rare "deep look" that candidates considering their futures should definitely read. Here's the money quote:

Work life in corporations and law firms affords advantages and disadvantages. To make the best choice for you, understand how those advantages and disadvantages align with your personality, goals and motivations. It is analogous to matching a boat with a captain. The speedboat captain does not want to carry cargo. Rather, he or she is focused on moving simply and quickly through a clear course. The freightliner captain appreciates that with patience and time, he or she can deliver enormous results.

Be sure you are boarding the right ship to get to your destination.

I'll add that the article is incomplete in one key respect: A very good and satisfying personal and professional life can also be obtained outside law firms and corporate law departments. There are numerous E-Discovery service providers, software developers, and consultancies to consider, as well as starting your own. I have many friends and colleagues who, after evaluating all their options, chose one of these paths. These organizations tend to be more nimble than either law firms or corporations, and provide the opportunity to gain a wide range of experience across many clients in a rather short period of time. Even with the competitiveness of this market, or perhaps in spite of it, there is a sense of collegiality that cannot be easily discounted.

This isn't to say one of the above choices is inherently better or preferred over the other. I heartily agree with Deena -- it helps to know what kind of captain you are, so you can choose the right boat for you. Even in these turbulent economic times, there are more boats and harbors than one may initially realize.

Topic(s):   Electronic Discovery
Posted by Jeff Beard