New Year, New Job As An In-House Counsel

By Roy Strom - Law Bulletin staff writer

It’s a new year. So, as the saying goes, it’s a new you.


Either way, if a career move involving an in-house legal job is something you’ve plotted out for 2014, Sonya Olds Som — a managing director in legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa’s in-house counsel practice group — has some advice.

No. 1: If you’re just starting to reach out to old friends and colleagues now — with the specific goal of making a move — your last-second approach runs the risk of coming across as disingenuous.

That’s why it’s Som’s mantra that nobody — not even top general counsels — can afford to get out of the networking game, which she said is easier than ever to stay on top of with a well-managed LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook account — especially LinkedIn, she said.

However you do it, Som said make sure your networking approach feels natural to you. Because in today’s increasingly competitive in-house job market, it comes down to who you know.

“When you get down to the general counsel positions, pretty much everyone went to good schools. Everyone can substantively do the work,” Som said. “The people who have really honed those EQ (emotion quotient) and relationship building skills, even in an interview process, are the ones who get the positions.”

The Daily Law Bulletin talked with Som about what she thinks makes candidates for in-house positions stand out and how they can be successful once they land those roles. The interview has been condensed for space.

Law Bulletin: What is the first thing you discuss with a law firm lawyer who is looking to move in-house?

Som: The first thing I do is ask them why. And I listen to them explain what their thought process is and what they think being in-house is going to be like and how they think it’s going to be different than being at a law firm.

I start from there. And it’s interesting to me that people I talk to — from law students, associates, partners and some managing partners — so many people start from this place of what it is they want to run away from, in terms of dissatisfaction with law firm life.

And they don’t start with what they want to run towards in terms of having a really grounded, realistic expectation about what their life would be like at a company.

LB: At what point in someone’s career is it easiest to make the move from a law firm to an in-house position?

Som: Let’s be clear: It’s never easy, especially now.

It’s a lot more difficult now purely based on competition, because you have people who were already in-house lawyers also competing with more people who want to go in-house (from a law firm) in a depressed legal economy.

So it’s never easy. But what I would say is there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. If you are in a rare, highly in-demand practice area, you may be able to make the transition more easily and sooner coming straight from a law firm.

People with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) backgrounds who can then pair that with a law degree and at least a little bit of law firm seasoning — maybe three to four years — or people with a strong financial services or intellectual property background, for example, I think those people probably can make the transition a little bit earlier and a little more smoothly.

So it can be as little as three to four years, but I think the sweet spot, at least for a firm like ours, tends to be more in that six- to 12-year range.

LB: Most general counsels, like you say, are not hired directly from law firms. What are the skills a mid-level or senior in-house lawyer needs to develop that can be a tiebreaker in the competition for a general counsel spot?

Som: It really comes down to EQ. It really comes down to those social skills and emotional intelligence skills — the ability to be someone who can build consensus. Someone who is business-savvy. And someone who can be a real business adviser.

The (candidate) who can read a room, read a situation and knows how to manage … and can use social skills and problem-solving skills is really going to have the edge.

There comes a point where just having the right schools, the right clerkships, the right law firms or even the right in-house experience isn’t enough. Because at a certain point you’re going to get down to two people and you both have that.

So, the one that gets the job is going to be the one who demonstrates the passion, demonstrates that they get the culture of the organization and understands what the business needs from a consigliere in order to move forward.

LB: What are the main aspects of your job and how do you view your role?

Som: I view my role primarily as a connector, connecting people to each other and information. That’s both for my team within the company as well as for candidates and clients.

So it’s primarily a relationship-building and information-sharing function. I’m trying to add value however I can to my colleagues and the work they do executing searches here within the company as well as to the many candidates and clients that I know.

LB: There’s another role you play … as a matchmaker between and among general counsels. You help them get together for lunch, coffee or set up mentorships among general counsel. Can you tell me a little about that?

Som: It’s interesting. Because I was a former law firm partner ... and I knew some GCs. But I knew them as the client. I knew them as these almost godlike creatures sitting up on a cloud and deciding whether or not I got work.

And … in the almost four years I’ve been at MLA, I’ve gotten to know a great many GCs as people. And I’ve come to realize they’re people and they’re lawyers just like me, just like my colleagues and all of us. They have families. They have interests, hobbies, hopes and fears — both about their company and their role as well as about their own careers.

And in some ways, (being a general counsel) can be an isolating situation in terms of not having people that you can talk to who understand what you’re going through. And (there may not be many) people you feel comfortable to turn to for advice.

So the matchmaking role has been a very interesting one — especially with younger GCs or GCs who have just moved to the area and who are really looking for community the same way we all as human beings want to be a part of community.


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