In-House Counsel Financial Sector Career Paths (Panel Report)

by Andrew Gurman, Managing Director
Michael Lord and Company

I moderated a panel at the NYC Bar Association on “In-House Career Paths in the Financial Sector” on March 25, 2014. The panelists were Jill Simeone, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, KCAP Financial, Inc.; Michael Sternhell, Vice President and Associate Counsel, OppenheimerFunds; Carl McCarthy, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corporation; and Andrew Dominus, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer, Seer Capital Management. The audience included in-house attorneys, attorneys at both small and large law firms, and recent law school graduates.

The lively discussion lasted two hours and included the following highlights and advice:

1. Transitioning in-house

  • “Make networking your job.” Set up coffee meetings (or phone calls) with your network, and be specific about what you would like to do in your career.
  • Ask open-ended questions about job possibilities so as not to shut off the conversation with people who can lead you to job opportunities. Instead of asking, “Do you have a job?” ask whether someone knows of anyone who might be aware of other opportunities or who might be helpful to speak with.
  • If you work in a firm that would support it, tell the partners with whom you work that you are looking to go in-house and ask them to keep you in mind if they have any leads.
  • Stay in touch and maintain good relationships with the attorneys you used to work with as they can help you find new positions throughout your career.
  • Attorneys who are 4-8 years out of law school and have had solid training (typically BigLaw and transactional) are in a sweet spot for in-house opportunities.
  • It can take a long time – several months or even years – to make the move in-house.

2. In-House Experience

  • There is a great deal of variation in companies and therefore in-house positions. Working as the only counsel for a 20-person start-up company is extremely different from being one of 500 in-house attorneys in a specialized role for a Fortunate 10 company.
  • The law firm to in-house move involves one of going from “service provider to trusted advisor.” In-house attorneys work closely with their internal business-side clients and are focused on solving problems.
  • Moving in-house from BigLaw often involves becoming more of a generalist.
  • Fire drills and intense work days are common, and attorneys are sometimes on their mobile devices responding to emails outside of business hours. But attorneys enjoy more predictability in their schedules.
  • It is important to avoid being the “tower of no” in assessing the legal viability of various proposals. Exhibit flexibility and assist the business people in coming up with practical solutions. Use your legal skills as an in-house attorney, but also use common sense and do not be didactic.

3. Dealing with Dislocations

  • “Always look for other possibilities.” Because of mergers, acquisitions, restructurings, and work slow-downs, continue networking on a regular basis and stay in touch with your contacts.
  • Maintain a LinkedIn profile with a picture and update it regularly.
  • Take recruiters’ calls, and stay in touch with them.
  • Remain open to positions in other geographical regions, although this is less critical for financial industry in-house attorneys because NYC is such a strong financial center.

4. Compensation

  • BigLaw attorneys often have to take a base salary cut but can make up that money in bonuses in in-house financial sector positions.
  • Stock options and other incentive compensation often constitute a significant component of an in-house counsel’s compensation.

5. Interesting Audience Questions

  • “I am a junior associate at a law firm. How can I position myself for an in-house compliance role?” Response: Get as much experience as possible and learn as much as you can about the various regulatory frameworks, including Dodd Frank, The Investment Company Act of 1940, etc. You can gain this experience at a broad mix of law firms – from BigLaw firms to 5-attorney law firms.
  • “Is it possible to go into a compliance position directly out of law school, and if someone does that, is it possible to transition to other in-house positions?” Response: Yes, law students can go directly into compliance roles. But an attorney who has worked for a significant amount of time in a compliance role will typically have few options to leave the compliance field.
  • “Any advice on resumes?” Response: Tailor your resume to the particular position for which you’re applying. Include details relevant to the position at hand, and exclude unnecessary information. Less is more; one page is ideal, but multiple pages are acceptable for mid-level/senior attorneys. It is easier to prepare a one-page resume when you use a transaction/case sheet that can be multiple pages. On a related note, cover emails/letters are important when applying directly for a position and should similarly be specifically tailored.
  • “I am an older attorney having trouble finding opportunities. Should I speak with a career coach?” Response: Yes, career coaches can be helpful with the search process. Recruiters can also be helpful in describing the state of the market and giving attorneys a realistic sense of potential opportunities.

Andrew Gurman is a Managing Director with Michael Lord & Company. Andrew graduated from Harvard Law School and Yale University and is a former associate with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in New York. His direct dial is 646.258.2476, and his email address is andrew@mlordco.com.

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