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After the Bar

Practice Areas & Settings

In-House Counsel or Law Firm Partner?

Anna C Mourlam and Marina A Gatto

In-House Counsel or Law Firm Partner?

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It can be daunting for law students and junior attorneys to map out a career in the legal industry. What’s the difference between an in-house path and a law firm path? What skills are best for each one? As mid-level associates currently working in-house and at a large law firm, we’ve been through those early stages of our careers. We can provide insights on navigating each career path and how to get hired and thrive in each world.

Law Firm Path

Large law firms tend to be very hierarchical, and partners have to bring in work. They often look to associates and counsel to assist with their work and, sometimes, take on a day-to-day managerial role for matters. If you are hoping to make partner at a large law firm, consider seeking out well-respected individuals in practice areas that align with your interests and looking to them for mentorship and guidance. By cultivating these relationships, you not only learn about client management and business development, but you also could end up with opportunities to shine during, for example, client pitches and presentations.

Professional Skills

If you are a junior associate at a large law firm, you should also start developing a range of professional skills to help set you up for success. These include:

  • Collaboration. Being a team player is critical. Although it can be tough to shift from law school’s competitive mindset, it is essential to see your fellow associates as teammates—not the competition. When you work together to help the client achieve a favorable result, everyone wins. Be generous with your resources and insight, as this will lead to a better work product and a happier client.
  • Creativity. It can be intimidating as a junior associate to speak up during meetings or to introduce a different solution to the problem presented. Part of your value, however, is your uniqueness. Bringing a different set of ideas to the table can earn you the respect of your colleagues and can help find a creative solution to assist the client.
  • Responsiveness and Enthusiasm. As a junior associate, what you lack in experience, you can make up for with enthusiasm. Always be ready to help out where needed on a case or project. Don’t be afraid to take on an assignment outside your wheelhouse, as it will often lead to you developing a valuable new skill set. The willingness to tackle a new project—and, equally important, your responsiveness to your team—will go a long way to securing similar work in the future.

Job Opportunities

So, how do you get started at a large law firm? Most large law firms hire directly from law schools. Research and apply to those firms that have an established practice group in your preferred practice area and have 1L and 2L summer associate opportunities. You could also look for opportunities to attend law school career fairs and firm-hosted meet-and-greet events, as it never hurts to network and establish additional connections.

If you are looking to make a move as a lateral associate, one option is to develop a differentiated, sought-after skill set. For example, demonstrated court experience can go a long way in making you a more competitive candidate for a junior litigation role.

In-House Path

In-house practice is a different animal altogether. There are generally two types of in-house attorneys: specialty counsel and product counsel. Specialty counsel tend to be former partners with substantial expertise and storied credentials in a given field. Product counsel may be more junior, serving as a jack-of-all-trades with good instincts and a talent for issue spotting.

When to Make the Move

If you are four to six years into your practice, you are in a sweet spot for making a move in-house. Surprisingly, a candidate’s practice area is less critical than a proven track record of leading projects. Secondment experience is extremely valuable, particularly in the industry you want to join. So, too, are attorneys who are skillful at “translating” the issues for different types of audiences and those who can self-manage.

Whether you are looking to succeed at a big law firm or make a move in-house, you should start early developing those skills that will make you stand out and set you up for success. And don’t be afraid to reach out to mentors or more senior associates in your field of interest—we’re here to help!