So, You Want to Go In-House?October 2, 2013
Many law firm lawyers yearn to move in-house with a corporate law department, noting such benefits as abandoning the hassles of timesheets and eliminating the pressure to develop business. However, to successfully make this move, you must understand how the ideal in-house candidate profile differs from that for most law firms, and how best to present yourself as such a candidate in an interview.
THE IDEAL CANDIDATE
While lawyers at a firm typically specialize in a specific practice area, most in-house counsel are generalists, juggling anything law-related that comes their way. They handle a varied caseload where no two days are the same. This requires multitasking and legal triage skills to quickly prioritize tasks and delegate as needed. Most lawyers make the move in-house while mid- to senior-level associates, or later, having garnered solid law firm training. New law school graduates typically lack sufficient business experience and exposure to a variety of practice areas and legal tasks to immediately step into an in-house role.
In-house legal departments primarily hire lawyers with transactional expertise, especially in corporate, securities, mergers and acquisitions, and—depending upon the company’s business—real estate or intellectual property; labor and employment expertise also is 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.
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 an attorney from a law firm works “on loan” at a corporation’s location for a set period of a few months to a year or more. At a minimum, the candidate must understand the target company’s business workings and its market position.
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 experience 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 backgrounds.
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 know how to translate from legal jargon and clearly recommend what the company should do as a result of your advice.
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, 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 is a people person. You must engender respect, yet work collaboratively with a proactive, service-oriented attitude. Corporations usually don’t have their attorneys, even the junior ones, work in back rooms, isolated from the businesspeople. You share office space and meet with your client on a daily basis. To give advice based on a thorough understanding of how the business works, you must get out and see how people do their jobs.
THE IN-HOUSE INTERVIEW
When interviewing at law firms, you meet with attorneys almost exclusively. However, when looking in-house, 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 cover 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 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. Highlight instances when you showed the intangible attributes that corporations seek, and briefly relate relevant stories.
For more senior in-house positions, you’ll need demonstrable management skills. Show you can delegate responsibility and provide feedback, and 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 team leadership, firm committee chair responsibility, and key roles in professional and community organizations.
You must convey your understanding that the priorities and mindset for an in-house position are different than what’s required in a law firm. 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 whom the company uses as outside counsel, don’t ask 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.
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 more varied workload and involvement in transactions from conception through completion.
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.
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.
The biggest 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. With that in mind, you can better portray yourself as the ideal candidate in an in-house interview.
Source: Corporate Counsel