Making the transition from a law firm position to an in-house counsel position is not usually a quick and easy process! There is an abundance of qualified lawyers vying for every in-house position. Further, you are competing against lawyers who already have in-house experience, so your process can be more difficult.
If you are not getting the traction you want in your in-house search, start at the beginning by taking a look at your resume. Is your resume clearly explaining what you do? Does it illustrate the skills that will be transferable to an in-house position? Are there too many items left unsaid on your resume?
There are endless suggestions about how to improve your resume cosmetically, but I want you to focus first on the substance of your resume. What can you do to thoughtfully present your law firm experience on your resume to make you an attractive candidate for in-house positions?
The reality is that often times your resume is getting a first read by an internal recruiter at a company who is not a lawyer. These recruiters are inundated with resumes for a multitude of positions, and they have to screen you. If you have a highly detailed resume that is too granular, your experience may not be clear to the eye of a non-lawyer. In reality, semantics matter on your resume – how you say what you do and who you are will impact the traction you get in your in-house job search. Remembering that your first audience is not always a lawyer is key.
For example, if you are a corporate lawyer at a large law firm looking to land that coveted in-house transactional role, make sure you explain your work in understandable terms. The fact that you focus on structured finance is great, but you want to point out that you also have strong experience drafting and negotiating a wide variety of commercial contracts. Highlight which type of contracts and transactions you handle: licensing agreements, M&A transactions, and the like. If your practice is very niched, it is easy to forget to highlight your underlining, basic corporate experience. Most of the companies that will consider a law firm candidate for one of their transactional positions want to know about your commercial contracts experience, not just your niched transactional practice.
If you routinely counsel business clients, tell me that – tell me that you act as outside general counsel to corporate clients in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. If you have experience advising the Board of Directors or even attending their meetings, say that front and center. Telling me about with who you interact with is as important as the substance of the interaction.
If you are a litigator looking to go in-house, do you also handle internal investigations? If so, tell me that you represent clients in large-scale investigations in a certain industry. Explain that you help prepare your client’s key personnel for cross-examination and that you have had first-chair experience with litigations and/or investigations. If you counsel your clients on employment issues, in addition to litigating them, be clear about that. Again, the nature of your interaction is important for us to know. The skill set of preparing key employees at your clients is obviously relevant to working in-house at one of those companies. The experience counseling companies on employment issues is extremely transferable to an in-house setting as well. The ability to advise, and not just litigate for, your clients needs to be stated on your resume.
More is Sometimes Less
I believe that there is an important distinction between “tweaking” your resume to highlight specific experience relevant to a certain position, and “tailoring” your resume to echo the job description. The former is a good use of time and will result in a well-crafted, genuine resume that brings attention to your relevant skill set. The latter can be a slippery slope of overstating one’s qualifications and sounding too obvious – reciting the job description is not the goal.
Princeton Legal Search Group is handling an in-house counsel search for one of our clients, and the lead lawyer told us that he is always alarmed when someone’s resume hits all of the points in the job description. He does not like when the resume reads as if you are a master of all – it is not plausible. Further, it actually does you a disservice because if you emphasize too wide of a skill set, you may show that you do not have depth in those skills. In fact, I recently met with a General Counsel who told me that he is repeatedly surprised at the “lack of substantive depth” and knowledge that many attorneys have when being considered for a role at his company.
That General Counsel may be incorrect about the lack of depth of those lawyers. It may be the result of the fact that many lawyers become so focused on checking all of the boxes of the job description that they undercut themselves in the process. In an attempt to check all of the boxes, lawyers often forget to take a step back and really ensure that their resumes are accurate snapshots of their practice. Showing depth in a particular, relevant area will trump showing a bullet-point list of checking all of the boxes.
When using acronyms, spell them out as well. FDA is generally understood but FCPA and EPLI may not be, so take the time to spell them out! If you are going to use the term a lot, then make it a defined term in the beginning, i.e., Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).
If you have relevant certifications (ex, privacy certifications), put them front and center so we can find them!
If you are actively in the process of relocating and seeking an in-house job in that locale, make that clear!
If you made a move in your career due to law firm merger/dissolution, state that! Similarly, explain if you left one law firm for another along with a partner and/or practice group. This way, the employer does not have to guess why you made a move – it is explained by you right away on your resume.
Highlight your client contact in your resume. One of the biggest skill sets you acquire as an in-house lawyer is how to interact with your internal clients on a daily basis. If you are already doing that with external law firm clients, tell me that on your resume.
If you have experience managing junior associates or paralegals, include that in your resume. That management experience can be as important as your substantive legal experience, when seeking an in-house position. Companies want lawyers who know how to work with others, and have experience managing and leading.
If you have a plethora of clients in one specific industry segment, and you are seeking an in-house position in that industry, include that.
Lawyers often tell me that they will explain all of the above (relocation, career moves, client contact) in their cover letters, but the truth is that you cannot assume everyone is thoroughly reading your cover letter. So go ahead and explain those things in your cover letter, but highlight them in your resume as well, in a concise manner.
Do not hide/omit your graduation year. If you are afraid that you will be deemed overqualified or too experienced for a role, omitting your graduation year does not help you. A simple Google/Linked-In search will likely tell the company what year you graduated, so omitting it from your resume looks calculated.
Do not obsess over the length of your resume to your own detriment. Of course no one wants a resume that spans four pages, but do not focus on making it fit to just one page. If you have been practicing for a while, it is reasonable to have a resume that fills up two pages.
Do not focus more on academics than on the substance of your practice. A top-notch academic pedigree will always be desired by employers, but in-house counsel want to know what you are doing on a daily basis. So tell me, shortly and sweetly, about your academic accolades, and then move on to the business of explaining your practice.
Do not explain your job differently than it is explained on your law firm website. I have seen this happen several times, and it does not work. If your law firm puts you in their “Insurance Litigation” practice group, you have to be clear on that. I have seen lawyers overly tweak their experience on a resume, and when the company checks the law firm website, it is not consistent with the resume. I understand the desire to highlight relevant experience, but remember that your law firm biography is easily accessible to the world, and you need to be consistent with that. (If your biography does not currently reflect what you do on a daily basis, work with your firm to change the description of your practice).
The reality is that your resume matters more than you think, when seeking an in-house position. It is a quick glimpse into you and your practice, and you need to get the employer’s attention. Be clear in your descriptions and do not assume that everyone is reading your cover letters. Take a step back and really think about the underlying, important skills that you have acquired in your law firm practice – general corporate governance work; litigation management skills; working in teams and managing others; counseling clients on a daily basis about a myriad of issues; handling clients in various industries – and highlight those skills. You can get specific on your resume, but not without first explaining the basics of what you do and how it is transferable to an in-house position.
Melissa A. Peters, Esq. is Managing Director at Princeton Legal Search Group. She focuses exclusively on the permanent placement of lawyers in law firm and in-house settings. She can be reached at 732.744.3400 and firstname.lastname@example.org.