Many law firm lawyers yearn to move in-house, citing such benefits as abandoning the hassles of timesheets and eliminating the pressure to develop business. To successfully make this move, you must understand how the ideal in-house candidate profile differs from that for most law firms.
In-house employers usually don’t value academic credentials such as law school prestige and the candidate’s class rank as highly as law firms do; rather, they weigh legal experience, business sense, and interpersonal skills much more heavily. This depends, however, on the backgrounds of the corporation’s executives and general counsel. If they have fancy pedigrees, they are more likely to want candidates with similar qualifications.
While law firm lawyers usually specialize in a particular practice area, most in-house counsel are generalists, juggling anything law-related that comes their way. No two days are the same. This requires multi-tasking and legal triage skills to quickly prioritize tasks and delegate, if necessary. Most lawyers make the move in-house as mid-to-senior level associates, or later, having garnered solid law firm training. New graduates usually lack sufficient business experience and exposure to a variety of practice areas and legal tasks.
Companies overwhelmingly favor lawyers who know and understand their business. The ideal in-house candidate has experience either working within or representing clients in the same or similar industry as the prospective employer. Especially attractive is an attorney with secondment experience, where a law firm lawyer works “on loan” at a corporation’s location for a set period of a few months to a year or more. At minimum, the candidate must understand how the target company’s business works and its market position.
In-house legal departments primarily hire lawyers with transactional expertise, especially in corporate, securities, mergers & acquisitions and, depending upon the company’s business, real estate or intellectual property. Labor and employment expertise also are desirable. While litigation management skills are valuable, most corporations other than those with the largest law departments send active litigation matters to outside lawyers. Consequently, law department positions for pure litigators are few and far between.
Excellent verbal and written communication skills are mandatory. You need confidence and strong negotiating skills, not just for deal-making across the table, but also to advocate for your recommendations within the company. You’ll interface with non-lawyers at all levels of the organization, from board members and executives to line workers and everyone in between, including salespeople, scientists, engineers, and administrative staff. You must translate from legal jargon and clearly recommend what the company should do as a result of your advice. Nevertheless, be prepared for your recommendations to be ignored some of the time.
A strong in-house candidate also combines legal skills with creativity to resolve complex business problems. Many businesspeople resent their lawyers as roadblocks who only offer reasons why a strategy won’t work. A good in-house counsel must produce innovative solutions with acceptable levels of risk (rarely are solutions risk-free) so the company can achieve its goals yet stay out of trouble.
In a corporate legal department, you’re paid for results, not your time. Unlike in a law firm where you can research all aspects of a legal problem and polish your work product, in a business environment, you must be decisive and willing to make a judgment call, even if you’re not 100 percent certain. You must develop the ability to accurately determine when “good” is “good enough” to get the job done, and focus on critical tasks that add value to the business. There’s no time for analysis paralysis.
The ideal in-house candidate also is a people person. Corporations usually don’t have attorneys, even junior ones, who work in back rooms, isolated from the businesspeople. You share office space and meet with your client on a daily basis. Effective in-house lawyers get out “on the floor” to see how people do their jobs and the issues they face, so they can give advice based on a thorough understanding of how the business really works. You must engender respect yet work collaboratively with a proactive, service-oriented attitude.
——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.