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After the Bar

Career Resources

Making the Transition to In-House Counsel

Diane Holt

Making the Transition to In-House Counsel
borchee via iStock

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For many lawyers, their first job after law school is intended to be transitional. The goal? To develop a combination of subject matter training, practice experience, and résumé-building for the next position.

If your target is corporate legal counsel, what can you do now to become a strong candidate when the right opportunity comes along? Consider your skill development along the following seven dimensions.

1. Continue to Develop Your Substantive Legal Practice

The most important way to plan for your future is to seek work now that builds on your strengths. Whether you’re working for a large or small law firm, government, or private organization, continue to seek work that you’re good at and develop those efforts into one or more areas of expertise.

How do you create a portfolio of projects you can talk about? Take the initiative to ask for assignments that relate to your interests and successes. In some businesses, there is a system for assigning work to newer lawyers; in others, it is up to individuals to seek and find assignments.

Sometimes, a role does not provide the skill or experience you will need to move into an in-house counsel position. One workaround is to consider pro bono work that will develop that expertise. Many nonprofit and community organizations need legal assistance that can be combined with your day job to show that you have demonstrated expertise. In some cases, your employer will provide credit for your volunteer work—a bonus. (Just ensure that the work that you do is covered by malpractice insurance, either through your work or through the organization you’re helping.)

2. Decide If You Will Go Deep or Go Broad

As you are developing your substantive expertise, it’s likely that your work will lead you into a narrow specialty or, alternatively, you will find yourself taking on several related issues. No worries! Just be aware that corporate legal departments are likely to seek out one profile or the other. A business with deep investments in branding wants lawyers who are trademark specialists, and they may not care as much about your other intellectual property work. On the other hand, a startup may appreciate your venture capital experience and may want you to handle employment, commercial and vendor contracts, and finance as well. Arguably, it’s more important for you to know how you work best and push in that direction.

3. Find a Mentor 

One secret about professional development for lawyers is the importance of mentors: they can provide substantive legal guidance (if they happen to work in your area), but they can also help you navigate the subtleties in your organization. Later, they can serve as references for you in both informal and formal ways.

If your organization does not provide a formal mechanism for assigning mentors—and most do not—forge ahead anyway. Use your first year to find a more experienced lawyer whom you like, and then take a deep breath and ask. You may find that the person you ask appreciates your initiative, not to mention the insight into your experience and your view of your organization. The role does not need to be burdensome for either of you, but it can make a big difference to have someone you can refer to from time to time.

4. Focus on an Industry

Many lawyers think of our work as sector-agnostic. But corporate legal departments do not. The legal department needs to understand the business environment in order to provide legal recommendations in context. It is much more efficient to hire corporate counsel who already has the needed business background.

5. Develop Communication Skills with Nonlegal Business Partners

In-house counsel typically spend much more time interacting with nonlegal professionals than do their counterparts in law firms. Consequently, part of your eventual interview process will require you to demonstrate that you have the personality to make the transition to a corporate communication style. Can this in-house counsel candidate get the critical business information they need from resources in the company? Can they present legal advice in a nontechnical, actionable form? Your success in a legal department is dependent on your ability to operate in a corporate environment. 

How do you show that you can make the shift? Seek out opportunities to communicate with nonlegal clients. Learn about different corporate hierarchies and approaches to managing risk and change in your client relationships. Use your pro bono work to highlight your ability to function in a variety of contexts. 

6. Demonstrate Instances When You Have Made Recommendations

Broadly speaking, corporate legal departments work with their corporate counterparts to solve problems and take the business forward. In-house lawyers need to feel confident giving recommendations and standing behind them. This approach can be quite different from law firm lawyers’ approaches, which often focus on issue-spotting and identifying possible alternatives.

To be a successful in-house candidate, you will need to show that you can review the facts and the law and suggest a preferred outcome. Take opportunities that come your way to exercise this skill. Sometimes, law firm clients prefer this type of assistance and will be happy for you to offer it. (Some law firms, however, specifically refrain from making recommendations, so make sure that you are operating within the rules of your organization.) At other times, participation in discussion and decision-making teams consisting of lawyers and business partners may call for you to show that you can deliver action-oriented advice. 

7. Selectively Pursue High-Value Networking and Publishing

Networking can be a good outlet, but it needs to be combined with significant involvement or publishing to round out a résumé. If you do decide to join an organization, figure out how you can contribute to the substantive work of a committee that intersects with your work, and then suggest a project that will help you develop professionally. For example, if you decide to join an organization such as the American Bar Association, join a committee or a subcommittee, and then raise your hand to take on a substantive project. Becoming a member of a professional organization may help you stay up to date, but you’ll need to find a way to interact substantively with lawyers in your desired practice area if you want to make the experience a real asset.

Another option is to publish an article through your organization’s website, a bar association, a nonprofit, or a legal publishing firm—or, if you’re feeling more academic, in a law review. But even if you do not take the formal law review route, putting your byline on an informal article can boost your market presence. Consider writing up a summary of what you’ve learned from a recent project or analyze a recent legal development (maybe one you’ve been wanting to know more about). Recruit a coauthor, if possible—a mentor, someone with more experience than you, or someone who can add a different dimension to your piece. 

If you’re interested in shaping your career to land in a corporate legal department, you can take a few steps now to develop your skills and be ready to communicate them to a potential employer. As you collect up the many relevant experiences recommended here, don’t forget to keep a list of what you’ve accomplished so that you’re ready when the time comes.