To successfully land that much-desired in-house legal position, you must know how the corporate interview process differs from that of a law firm. Use that knowledge to your advantage to show you possess the qualities necessary for an effective in-house counsel. While law firm lawyers specialize, corporate counsel advise regarding a wide variety of legal issues, providing practical solutions to business problems. They often spend more time managing people and resources than actually practicing law.
The trickiest question you’ll encounter when transitioning from law firm to in-house is why you want to make the move. Never say you’re looking for a “lifestyle change!” While it’s true that jettisoning billable hours and rainmaking pressures are attractive features of the switch, corporate counsel understandably are wary of anyone who signals a desire for an easier job. Better ways to answer that question include:
- The opportunity to work for one client, rather than many;
- A chance to develop a thorough understanding of their business in order to create strategies and solutions that make long-term sense for the company, not just for a particular matter;
- A more varied workload and involvement in transactions from conception through completion;
- Your research into litigation or deals involving this company reveals legal issues you find stimulating and a good fit for your substantive experience;
- You want to be part of a team or organization with the ultimate purpose of (fill in product or service the company provides), and give a compelling reason why it’s important to you. Note, however, that demonstrating artificial passion about the business might get you hired but real interest in their mission will make you happier on the job.
In law firm interviews, you meet attorneys almost exclusively. When looking in-house, however, expect to interview with people at various levels of the corporate hierarchy and from different departments. Your initial interview may be an in-person or phone screening with a member of the human resources department. Next, someone from the legal department vets you for skills and fit. You may or may not meet the General Counsel during the process, depending upon the size and structure of the legal department and the company itself. You’ll probably interview with executives or members of other business departments with which you’ll interface if hired.
The attorney-conducted interviews usually focus on your legal skills, much like for any law firm job. People from the business side, however, want to know what you can do to grow the company. Show them you’ve thought about their business goals, their legal problems, and how you’d approach a solution. Executives want to hear how you can help them keep legal costs down. In the business world, solving legal problems quickly and cheaply is paramount.
Discuss how each entry on your résumé relates to the company’s legal and business needs. If the job description highlights specific competencies, note a few examples of work you’ve done utilizing those skills or in those practice areas. Mention situations where you demonstrated the intangible attributes corporations seek, briefly relating relevant stories.
For more senior in-house positions, you’ll need proven management skills. Show you can delegate responsibility, provide feedback, recruit, mentor, and develop talent for current and future roles¬ – and, possibly, fire people. Discuss experience in making and managing legal budgets. If you don’t have experience with people directly reporting to you, cite project or team leadership, firm committee chair responsibility, and key roles in professional and community organizations.
Express a willingness to roll up your sleeves and do whatever work is necessary. You probably won’t have a cadre of junior associates, paralegals, and 24-hour support staff at your beck and call. While it’s appropriate to ask who the company uses as outside counsel, don’t inquire how much work is farmed out. You’ll risk appearing to seek a cushy job where you primarily supervise outside lawyers. Assume you’ll be doing the heavy lifting and discuss your desire and ability to do so.
A fundamental difference between working for a law firm versus a corporate law department is your role in the business enterprise. When practicing in a law firm, you’re a revenue generator since the firm’s business is law. As an in-house lawyer, you’re part of overhead because you’re not engaged in producing the product or service the company sells in the marketplace. Therefore, to justify your position in the company, you must minimize costs and bring value to the bottom line. With that in mind, you can better portray yourself as the ideal candidate in an in-house interview.
——Valerie Fontaine is a partner in Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, a legal search firm based in Los Angeles (www.sfbsearch.com). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 842-6985. The second edition of her book, “The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development Strategies for Lawyers,” was published in March 2013 by NALP, The Association for Legal Career Professionals.
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