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December 16, 2014 Articles

How To Successfully Transition to an In-House Position

By Michele Bradley and Susan B. Cassidy

At some point in almost every lawyer’s career, she gives some thought to the idea of moving in-house from private practice. The desire to escape the billable hour, the fear of business development obligations, or simply the opportunity to have a more predictable schedule, are all very attractive reasons to go in-house. Attorneys rarely carve out time to prepare for the in-house move, however, until the moment they are ready to make the transition. The same actions that can help you succeed in private practice are equally beneficial should you decide that you are interested in pursuing an in-house position.

We have both made this transition. Before moving in‑house at McDonald’s, Michele Bradley worked as an employment associate in private practice in New York City. Susan Cassidy spent almost 20 years in private practice before moving in‑house, first to Motorola Inc. and then to Northrop Grumman Corporation. She is now back in private practice as a law firm partner. This article provides helpful tips for preparing to move in-house and the key factors for success once you finally take the leap of faith and land your in-house role.

Preparing to Move In-House

Feed Your Curiosity. For starters, treat your time at the law firm as an opportunity to feed your curiosity. Your appetite to learn will enable you to develop key legal skills that will be directly transferable to an in-house position. When hiring talent, companies often look for attorneys who have a specialized niche but have exposure to other areas of law as well. Your goal should be to keep your own professional development top of mind. Get as much exposure to varying legal issues and areas of law as possible. Try to work with partners and senior associates outside of your specific practice area. Obtaining a well-rounded experience can take many different forms. For example, if you are a transactional attorney, consider a pro bono opportunity that would allow for courtroom or mediation exposure. Look for skills-training opportunities in your local legal community such as clinical programs, CLEs, or seminars.

Research Opportunities. It is never too early to begin researching potential in-house opportunities. Even if you know your transition is a ways off, skim job listings on a regular basis to determine what skill sets companies desire in their attorneys.

Once you have a better understanding of what companies look for in a candidate, develop a game plan to obtain those skills. For instance, if you are a junior associate, ask to be staffed on leaner cases where you can have heightened responsibility. Ask to participate in meetings and calls with clients. When working with a nearby client, ask to physically visit the client site and meet the in-house staff. Take the opportunity to establish professional relationships with clients. You will also learn about the company’s particular industry, as well as the legal and non-legal challenges the company faces.

Secondments, where attorneys are placed “on loan” to a client, are also a wonderful stepping stone to moving in-house. They allow you to evaluate whether an in-house position makes sense for you. You have the opportunity to learn the inner workings of a client and to understand the tactical considerations and strong business judgment that go into making legal decisions in-house.

Network. The reality is that in today’s legal market, a great résumé and a prestigious professional and academic lineage alone may not be enough to land your dream in-house position. A large part of your success will depend on getting out of your office and networking. Join and become active in local or national legal organizations like the American Bar Association, Association of Corporate Counsel, and other specialized groups. Participate in their events. If your schedule permits, take a leadership role in order to become visible and establish your brand. Your active participation can be a springboard to meet in-house attorneys who can provide invaluable advice.

Understand that an official mentor title is not necessary in order to learn from someone. You can use these interactions to learn more about what in‑house counsel do on a day-to-day basis, what types of legal issues their companies face, and how legal departments are structured, to get a better sense whether the transition makes sense for you, and what type of company may be the best fit. Do keep in mind that networking transcends the traditional methods—use online resources like LinkedIn, Twitter, and other platforms to meet attorneys as well.

Salary and Other Factors. Learning, researching, and networking are all fairly obvious for anyone who is looking to make a job transition. But there are other factors that may not be top of mind when you are comfortable in your law firm job. One major consideration is a shift in salary. Oftentimes moving in-house will require you to take a reduced salary. Save early and often, so that financial considerations do not ultimately become a deterrent to making the transition.

While you are still at the firm, begin to compile a transactional deal sheet or representative matters list that you can provide to prospective employers, if requested. This sheet will help you keep track of your assignments and projects and also will come in handy as you brainstorm topics for your cover letter or interview responses. If you are still a junior attorney and have not yet decided on a practice area, consider thinking outside of the box. Choose a niche practice area, keeping in mind that labor and employment, mergers and acquisitions, securities, and real estate are often areas of need for corporations.

Last and most important, recognize that a key component to success in-house is effective communication, both oral and written. Use your time at the law firm to learn how to deliver clear, concise, and business-minded advice in a way that is not full of fluff or legalese.

Key Factors for Success after Your Move

When you finally make the move in-house, you enter a different type of law practice. As outside counsel, companies turn to you when they already suspect or know that they have a legal issue. In-house, you play a greater role in preventing problems by working in concert with your business team. The most effective in-house counsel are those who gain the trust of their business teams because they can offer advice that reflects both legal and business considerations. To gain that trust, there are a few basic points that new in-house counsel should keep in mind.

  • Learn the business. You are now a business partner on a leadership team; act like one. You will be a more effective advocate for your client if you understand what the company sells, the rhythm of sales (busy versus slow seasons), the competition, and the customer base. This type of knowledge helps to integrate you with the decision makers and also allows you to provide more targeted and useful advice.

  • Be a problem solver. Your job is not to opine on legal issues; you are there to provide solutions. And a “solution” that simply prohibits a proposal, without a viable alternative, will not be greeted warmly.

  • Learn the language. Every company has its own acronyms and terminology; become fluent. Do not hesitate to ask a colleague what a particular acronym or term means. If you do not learn the company’s language, you will miss key parts of the conversation.

  • Know when to pick up the phone. Because your job often involves a mix of legal and business advice, in-house counsel need to recognize that their internal communications may be subject to greater scrutiny from a privilege standpoint than previous communications as outside counsel. If there is truly a sensitive matter, pick up the phone or have the discussion in person. Do not create a potentially bad document that could be misconstrued later on.

  • Know who your client is. Often in-house counsel support a particular division or group within a corporation. Although one of your goals is for that business team to succeed, remember that the larger corporation is your ultimate client when providing advice and counsel. At times, this may put you at odds with the business team you support on a daily basis.

  • Learn to read the financial reports. The bottom line is important and it is equally important that you understand the financial metrics that are imposed on your business team. This understanding will allow you to offer legal advice that is consistent with your team’s overall financial goals if at all possible.

  • Train non-legal professionals. You will have limited resources compared to your outside counsel days. You will, however, work with adjacent capabilities in the corporation such as Human Resources, Procurement, and Tax, among others. Determine who within these organizations has good common sense and invest time getting to know them. Good communication across functional areas benefits you and the corporation.

  • Target concise communications. Your audience has changed. Rather than advising other lawyers, you will be advising the business directly. Do not provide a long and convoluted legal opinion. Give clear and concise guidance up front. Bullet points often are received more readily than a typical legal memorandum. But be prepared to support your advice with the legal underpinnings if challenged.

  • Be clear with outside counsel. You are now on the other side. Managing outside counsel can be a full-time job itself if both sides are not on the same page. Time spent up front discussing what you expect from your outside counsel will benefit you greatly in the long term. Similarly, helping your outside counsel to understand your business issues and concerns will help make her a better advocate for your company.

Keywords: young lawyers, in-house counsel, corporate counsel, professional development, career transition, secondment, networking, mentors

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