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May 17, 2019 Article

Insight from Women on the Inside: In-House Career Paths and Development

Five women attorneys describe their paths to in-house careers, differences between in-house and private practice, tips for career advancement, and experiences with implicit or explicit bias.

By Elizabeth T. Timkovich

The road to an in-house career can be long and winding or short and straight; experiences vary. I myself made the switch to in-house from private practice later in my career than many in-house attorneys, having worked as a private practice litigator for more than 15 years, including more than 6 years as a partner in a large multinational law firm. While I enjoyed my litigation practice, my team, my clients, and (let’s be honest!) my Big Law salary, I found myself drawn increasingly to the idea of a role in which I could help my client solve problems on a more proactive basis, from within, rather than in reaction to litigation claims. I was fortunate to be offered an in-house secondment in late 2016 that helped confirm for me that an in-house position would make me happy, and indeed it has. 

I accepted a permanent in-house position in December 2017, and I have nothing but positive things to say about the experience. The only possible exceptions were the surprising length of time it took to secure a permanent in-house position once I started applying, and the fact that I had to adjust downward my expectation of starting near the top of the seniority ladder. (Competition for in-house positions is intense, and it can be difficult to start out at the top—at least in a large organization like mine—unless you have a very specialized practice that fills a specific need.) But on the plus side, that readjustment of my initial expectations helped me open my eyes to a wider range of opportunities than I initially would have explored, leading me to a great position (still sufficiently senior) supporting a particular line of business—a position I would have missed in my initial search of only high-ranking litigation-related positions.

I wondered to what extent my in-house path mirrored or differed from the experiences of other in-house attorneys, and I put together a list of questions submitted to a diverse group of in-house women (outside my own company). Their responses are combined below, describing their respective paths to in-house careers, differences between in-house and private practice, tips for career advancement, and experiences with implicit or explicit bias.

How Did You Arrive at Your Current In-House Position, and What Made You Decide to Pursue an In-House Career?

Descriptions of their career progressions were provided by a diverse group of women (in no particular order):

  1. an employment attorney for a large manufacturing company who graduated from law school in 2004 and has worked in-house for almost 8 years;
  2. an attorney who has been practicing for 29 years and went in-house in her 24th year of practice, initially serving as litigation counsel for a global, publicly traded company, then as general counsel for a small consumer product manufacturer;
  3. a senior transactional attorney at a multinational corporation who has held a number of different in-house roles, including in litigation, in her 23.5 years of practice (almost 16 of them in-house);
  4. a director of litigation for a U.S. retail chain who went in-house in 2005, in her fifth year of practice; and
  5. an associate general counsel handling labor and employment matters for a global investment banking company, who took up law as a second profession almost 15 years ago and has been in-house for 4.

Each woman had some form of private practice before moving in-house.

One interviewee described her path as follows:

I started out as an associate at a national firm that practices employment law. About seven years in, it was time to start buckling down to become serious about making partner. It dawned on me that not only did I not want to buckle down to make partner, but I really did not want to be a partner at all! So it was time to consider another path, and I took an in-house position doing employment litigation (managing outside counsel) at a multinational retailer. Once I went in-house, I knew I had found the right fit for me, and I have held in-house roles ever since.

Another interviewee was a litigation and employment attorney at an outside law firm for 11 years before deciding to go in-house. As to why she decided to leave private practice to pursue an in-house career, she explained:

I was interested in developing the advice and counseling side of my practice, and liked the idea of partnering closely with the business from start to finish and advising on risk and providing practical legal solutions. . . . I was looking for an opportunity to develop additional skill sets beyond litigation, and those opportunities were not readily available in my outside practice.

The former general counsel with more than 20 years of prior private practice experience also expressed enjoyment of partnering closely with business leaders as a reason to go in-house, as well as a frustration with law firm politics and competition:

[W]hile I got great experience [in private practice], I grew tired of firm politics. It took me three years to transition in-house, but I love serving as corporate counsel and advising the business in all aspects of its operations. . . . I enjoy solving problems using creative strategies and getting good outcomes for my clients. In private practice, I was able to do this but also had to fight my partners for business and origination/responsibility credits.

Another interviewee planned from the get-go to seek an in-house career, and private practice was a means to an end to achieve that:

Conventional wisdom [at the time I came out of law school] was the need for an attorney to have five years of experience before going in-house. I started looking heavily into a move in-house around the five- to six-year mark [of private practice]. It was difficult [to find an in-house job] because I was doing mostly employment litigation, not counseling. . . . After a couple years of searching, an opportunity came up to work as a contract attorney for a global chemical company that was losing its only employment attorney and needed interim help. . . . I did well in that contract position, and the company offered me a permanent position. [When I moved to my current organization,] I accepted a more junior position than I’d been hoping for, though I was able to negotiate a higher salary. I decided to accept a lesser title in light of reassurance that, although the company couldn’t promise a timeline for promotion, they didn’t see why promotion couldn’t happen quickly.

The interviewee who serves as director of litigation for her company explained she decided to pursue an in-house career primarily because of a desire to have a more predictable and manageable work-life balance than what she saw available in most law firms at that time (around 2005). (She adds she “may have been mistaken” about the idea of a greater work-life balance in-house.) Describing her career progression, she explained how she started her legal career as a staff attorney for a Legal Aid–like organization:

I quickly learned the ins and outs of trial prep and litigation. During my tenure there, I represented indigent clients in civil, transactional, and commercial law matters . . . with 90 percent of my practice concentrated in litigation. These experiences helped to strengthen my negotiation and advocacy skills. I then went in-house with [my current company] working on leasing and lease administration. From there, I naturally began to migrate away from the drafting of real estate documents to the handling and settling of real estate disputes, and eventually [undertook] my role as Director of Litigation. The litigation skills I gained at Legal Aid were integral in [qualifying] for my current role.

What Are Some Key Differences Between In-House and Outside Counsel Life?

A common theme, as expressed in the words of one interviewee, is that in-house life is “more hands-on, sometimes more in the weeds, than outside practice[,]” with closer collaboration between the business and legal. Another (who said she would not go back to private practice) described her in-house role as that of a “thought partner” with her clients, adding that

[w]hen you give good advice, people tend to think of you as “their” lawyer, and they’ll come to you to bounce ideas. Maybe you could get there as an outside counsel for a small company without a robust in-house legal department, [but that’s not been my experience].

According to another interviewee—who qualified her own dislike of private practice (due largely to her introverted personality and distaste for client development) with the observation that many other lawyers love and thrive in that setting—

[w]hen I first went in-house, I realized, “This is what I always wanted, but I didn’t know it was possible! This is everything I like about private practice, minus the things I didn’t like!” I also loved working with outside counsel, strategizing and reviewing and revising briefs, all the things I enjoyed. But I no longer had to have the difficult, confrontational conversations with opposing counsel; outside counsel took care of that. It was great to focus on the actual work, knowing I only had one client, and I did not have to find any more. I could devote as much or as little time to a matter as I thought it needed, and the best part was that I was a better judge of how much time a matter really needed because I was focused on a single client whose needs I intimately understood from the inside. . . . The workload is still heavy, but it is manageable, and it is not constant. I can actually go on vacation and be on vacation.

One caveat, though (from another interviewee): “While there is not the billable hour or business development pressure, there are corporate politics and administrative challenges that have replaced those as pet peeves!”

What Are Some Tips for Attorneys Seeking to Gain or Advance an In-House Position?

In the interviewees’ experience, the following tips may help you obtain an in-house position and advance your in-house career.

Getting the in-house job:

  • Younger attorneys should develop a career plan and consider going in-house between their fifth and seventh years of practice. Learning how to practice as a corporate in-house attorney is excellent training and allows for a more rounded experience that can be applied later in a business or law firm setting.
  • Start by determining the type of industry you are interested in. In-house practice differs dramatically from industry to industry. (For example, challenges in a retail environment can differ greatly from those in more heavily regulated industries such as banking or health care.) Next, try to home in on what type of practice you would like. For example, do you want to primarily handle litigation, human resources issues and employment matters, contract drafting, or intellectual property (etc.)?
  • Networking is imperative. Knowing people in-house is helpful. In-house positions are coveted and often are not posted for long. Let people know you’re interested. Recommendations from within can be key to getting in the door.
  • Make sure you can say with certainty that you’ve done quite a bit of advising or counseling—more than just litigation work. More companies are hiring younger attorneys, but for a lot of roles, they’re going to want you to have some depth of knowledge. Know enough to be credible.
  • Have patience. It can take some time to find the right fit. Although your first in-house position may be a stepping stone, you want it to be the right one. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you should go in-house because it is easier—it is very challenging, particularly at first, and the daily pace can be aggressive. There are certainly positive trade-offs, but you should pursue in-house if you are truly seeking a different legal environment, not an easier one.
  • Make sure you negotiate your starting salary well. It is the baseline from which all your raises will be determined.

Advancing as an in-house attorney:

  • “Done is better than perfect.” While perfection in our work is stressed at the law firm, it is more important as an in-house lawyer to provide timely advice and get the job done, albeit competently.
  • Again, networking. Good work on its own isn’t always enough. If you’re in a large organization, you need to put yourself out there and get recognized.
  • Don’t assume people know you want to be promoted. Say so explicitly, and ask what you need to do to get to the next step. Having said that, recognize that there are a finite number of leadership roles in an in-house legal department. It is not like a firm, where anyone who meets the criteria can be partner.
  • If you want in-house leadership roles, be sure to ask for the “stretch” assignments, whether in your own area of practice or outside it. Those assignments get attention and communicate you are ready for the next step. Even if those assignments do not lead to promotion within your current organization, they provide invaluable experience you can speak to when seeking a higher role with a different company.
  • Don’t be afraid to take on new projects or tackle new areas of the law. The more open you are to assisting your business partners with solving their “legal” issues, the more likely you will find yourself being included in more opportunities within the company.
  • Again, have patience. Take the first several years (yes, I said years!) to learn how to be a really good in-house attorney. Then build relationships both internally and externally, and be open to subject matter areas that may be outside your niche or area of expertise.

Any Professional Advantages or Disadvantages to Being a Woman or Minority?

According to one interviewee, more and more companies today are placing emphasis on diversity and are conscious of wanting to have more diverse legal departments. In her experience,

[w]omen and attorneys of color should not forget that we have a different experience in this country and a different lens; and that’s something that can be sold as an asset. I can help a legal department and company because I sometimes can see problems others can’t or won’t see, based on my experiences as a minority woman as well as having formerly been a plaintiffs’ attorney.

However, she observes,

[s]tatistics speak for themselves. Great changes are being made for women (especially white women), but according to statistics, the chances of being general counsel of a large company are small. Bosses are more comfortable with the white guy (or white woman). That’s still pervasive, and we can’t pretend like it’s not.

“People tend to like people who are like themselves[,]” says another.

Since workplaces are male dominated, men tend to go to lunch with other men, make office chitchat with them, etc. From there is not hard to extrapolate that these men will hire and promote the men they are spending time with.

I have heard more than one man say he adheres to the practice of not being alone with a woman who is not his wife. If such a man is in a leadership position, and he will meet alone with a male subordinate, but not a female subordinate, the male subordinate will be promoted.

Other interviewees observed that women appear still to suffer from assumptions related to family obligations. One stated, “I have observed women colleagues who are parents being passed over for opportunities because people assume they would not be interested due to child care responsibilities.” And another said, in her own experience, “People make assumptions about my schedule as a working mother.”

Any Suggestions for Overcoming Bias in the Workplace?

The in-house women suggest the following ideas for addressing bias (implicit or explicit) in the workplace:

  • Be aware of it, and take action as appropriate. Invite colleagues to lunch if they have not invited you. In many cases, the lack of an invitation is not with an intent to exclude; it is just because people have lunch with people they already know or feel comfortable with.
  • Be willing to stand up for yourself. Being direct and authoritative when confronted with condescension or aggression works wonders. If someone makes an incorrect assumption about your schedule or availability, politely but directly correct them. Letting things fester can just eat at you; whereas the situation usually resolves when addressed quickly. You can’t change everyone’s perceptions or stereotypes, but you can claim space for yourself at the table.
  • Acknowledge bias when it occurs, and do not just allow it to continue. As attorneys, we are trained to be advocates, so take the opportunity to address the behavior and make it a teachable moment.
  • If there is someone you can trust and talk to at a higher level, that’s good. Having someone to talk to—especially who’s been around the organization and knows the politics and history—in whom you can confide and seek guidance is great. These types of relationships usually need to grow organically and may be hard to come by, but they can be very rewarding.
  • Last but not least, always carry yourself with the respect with which you desire others to treat you.

Sage advice, and I thank the women who shared their wisdom and experiences for this article.

Elizabeth Timkovich is a longtime leader in the ABA Section of Litigation and in-house counsel at Wells Fargo & Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).