While the majority of law school graduates begin their legal careers at law firms1, many eventually ask the question: Do I want to be an in-house attorney? Of course, regardless of whether a law firm associate aspires to become a law firm partner or seeks an in-house, nonprofit or government position, it is critical to focus on important career success strategies such as leadership development, branding, networking, community involvement and business development1. As in-house legal recruiters, however, we are often asked whether there are any particular strategies, tips or skills that could maximize the likelihood of landing an in-house legal position. To help answer that question, this article lays out what we believe are top strategies and skills needed for attorneys to succeed in gaining in-house employment.
The most common request we get from our clients regarding their in-house legal needs is that they want to hire a business person who happens to be a lawyer as opposed to a lawyer who knows business. Time and again, our clients ask us to find an attorney with strong business acumen who will understand the business and how it works and who will not be a nay-sayer. Companies want to know how they can accomplish business objectives legally and ethically. They do not want to witness employees running from the lawyer to avoid a roadblock; they do not want barriers to progress. Of course, the in-house counsel might have a legitimate legal issue with a business proposal, but an attorney with business acumen would find a solution. The attorney might say something like, "Well, you can't do it that way, but you can do it this way. This will avoid as much risk as possible while still allowing us to effectively move forward."
Some savvy attorneys gain experience through a secondment while at their law firm; they might work in a client's legal department full time for anywhere from three months to two years, gaining that important in-house experience and sharpening their counseling skills. A secondment experience gives law firm attorneys a greater understanding of the law firm client's business as well as the inhouse legal environment. Another option is to develop very strong relationships with several clients so that you become the go-to person for all of those clients' legal needs in all substantive areas of law. Whether it is a secondment opportunity for a major client or becoming the go-to-person for a smaller client, find ways at your law firm to develop business acumen, use it and then provide examples to show you have it.
In addition to developing strong business acumen and gaining experience in different areas of the law, you will also enhance your chances of in-house employment if you become an expert in a specific industry. Halley Gilbert, senior vice president and chief legal officer of Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, affirms, "Become an industry expert!" We recommend that junior attorneys try to gain experience across a variety of industries in order to evaluate which sectors are most interesting and compelling for them. Likewise, pre-law studies or professional experience may give you a head start in developing industry expertise. For example, if you have an engineering degree, you may naturally gravitate toward technology or software industry; if you worked as a medical researcher or clinician prior to law school, you may have a jump on healthcare industry expertise.
Once you have identified an industry to pursue, we advise that you learn as much as possible about that industry—both from a legal and business perspective. Study the industry from law firm partners who practice in the area, as well as from in-house attorneys and business professionals working in the field. Also, be sure to attend industry-specific panels and networking events where you will connect with business executives and in-house counsel. Not only will you meet industry thought leaders, but you will also gain insight into current industry developments, challenges and issues—legal or otherwise—that will add to your industry expertise. Finally, ask industry experts what publications, trade magazines, business journals and other resources they use to stay current—then research and consult them regularly. You may learn about industry trends leading to a need to hire in-house counsel with your expertise. You will also impress potential employers by communicating in their language (and not legalese). For example, we recently had a candidate who prior to her job interview met with an industry expert in the field and followed up with extensive research. She wowed the in-house hiring attorney with her in-depth knowledge of the relevant regulations in her interview and soon thereafter was offered the job based on her industry knowledge and preparation.
Becoming an industry expert and understanding what a company does are both keys to a successful search for in-house legal employment. Keith Wexelblatt, associate general counsel at Reebok, advises:
"For those looking for their first in-house job, make sure you know what the company actually does (note it’s probably not legal), what legal/biz services they need and how you can fulfill those needs with your expertise and experience. Be very knowledgeable about their services or products and anticipate the legal needs for which you can add value."
Of course there is no single path to finding in-house employment, and you should take advantage of all available resources in order to find your in-house job. Your first important resource is your network. As our Major, Lindsey & Africa colleague and in-house recruiter Sonya Olds Som aptly quips, "It's not entirely true that "It's not what you know but who you know," but it certainly feels true."3 Your network of professional and personal relationships is a critical source of information, job leads, referrals and introductions and should be constantly nurtured and expanded. As Som counsels:
"Connect and reconnect with former colleagues, classmates, opposing counsel, in-house counsel, law firm partners, board directors and other members of the C-suite. Having gotten your arms around who is in your network, make it a point to connect and reconnect with them online (ahem, LinkedIn again. but also Facebook), via email and in person one-on-one and at events. Out of sight means out of mind. And we're all trying to juggle so many relationships with so little time. Be strategic about the relationships you want to make sure don't die on the vine and smart about the various means that you can use to keep them alive. You never know where the next great opportunity is going to come from."
Nikki Hadas, senior vice president and general counsel of Akebia Therapeutics, agrees, suggesting that attorneys continually try to expand their networks to include in-house attorneys. Hadas advises, “Network, network, network! Have coffee or lunch with any in-house lawyer you can get connected with. Sometimes people don't technically have an open position, but they will open one up if they have a need and the right person comes along." An additional and helpful part of your network should also include legal search firms such as Major, Lindsey & Africa. If legal recruiters know you, they can reach out to you throughout your career to advocate on your behalf and also contact you when they become aware of a company seeking an attorney with your background and skill set.
Lastly, you should regularly review job boards for postings for in-house legal opportunities. Be sure to check out relevant industry association websites. For example, if you are seeking an in-house legal job in higher education, regularly review www.nacua.org (National Association of College and University Attorneys). If you are searching for an in-house chief privacy officer role or job requiring privacy expertise, you should review www.iapp.org (International Association of Privacy Professionals). Likewise, we recommend exploring our website, www.mlaglobal.com, as well as websites of other search firms for a broad range of job opportunities. The following websites are also helpful sources for in-house legal job postings:
You should also consider if you see a job posting whether there is anyone in your network who is connected to the company in some way, perhaps as a current or former employee, outside counsel or search firm handling the search. Rather than simply sending in a resume, explore whether your relationships can provide you with greater insight about the opportunity, get your resume in the right hands or put in a good word for you.
If you want to move in-house, seek every opportunity for close and sustained working relationships with your law firm clients. As noted above, such relationships will help you develop business acumen as well as put you front and center with a potential employer. Regardless of specialty, it is critical to seek out opportunities to interact directly with various client representatives such as C-suite executives, in-house counsel and other corporate employees. For example, if you are a labor and employment attorney, get to know the HR team; if your focus is SEC compliance or corporate finance, find every occasion to interact with the client's CFO or controller.
In addition, once you have direct access to clients, it is important that you impress them. As Gilbert recommends:
"Do great work for your clients as they are the best potential in-house targets. Not just the qualitative stuff but also the softer skills that solidify relationships. Make time to get to know your clients on a personal level, be responsive and try to think ahead to the next possible action following the completion of a project. For example, if you assist with a collaboration agreement, create user-friendly compliance guides to assist your client with the obligations they just agreed to."
Likewise, Susan Lipsitz, vice president, chief compliance officer and associate general counsel at Patheon, a company that develops and manufactures pharmaceuticals, also recommends developing client relationships as a critical element of any in-house job search. Lipsitz suggests building direct client relationships early on. "Seek out opportunities with smaller clients or in areas that afford an opportunity for counseling clients." Also, once relationships are formed, Lipsitz advises "offering practical, not purely legal or academic advice." As noted above, one way that attorneys distinguish themselves as strong in-house counsel candidates is by regularly demonstrating business savvy and sharing practical solutions for a challenging situation rather than simply reciting the statute and case law developments in a particular area of the law.
Finally, Nereyda Garcia, global head, ethics and compliance at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, suggested one way to gain in-house employment after observing an uptick in work from a client with whom you have a good relationship: the direct approach. Garcia suggests discussing with the client the potential to create a full- or part-time job or a secondment for you at the company. Of course, as Garcia also observes, that approach must be sensitive to the different perspectives of the associate, client and law firm so as not to disrupt relationships. Consider speaking to a trusted partner at the firm before approaching the client, if possible. But, law firm partners are often pleased to see their associates accept in-house counsel roles with their clients as a means to enhance the client relationship.
Whenever possible, seek out opportunities to work beyond your local geography. Lipsitz recommends, "As companies are becoming increasingly global in footprint and approach, try to handle matters in various states and outside the U.S., if possible." Many practitioners who focus on areas of international law will necessarily develop an international expertise, which will be helpful for companies seeking counsel with global experience. Likewise, attorneys should also try to develop additional familiarity with national legal practice, as both global and national experience can help distinguish you in a crowded candidate pool. For example, if you are a privacy and security law expert, it would be helpful to have at least limited knowledge and experience with international privacy law so that you can spot areas of concern for companies doing business outside the U.S. In addition, you should take advantage of any assignment that may provide an opportunity to compare and contrast U.S. law with a particular international law perspective.
If you aspire to find in-house legal employment, we recommend that you start to take action early on. For both career development reasons and to enhance your in-house legal counsel job search, we recommend that as soon as possible in your legal career you begin focusing on gaining business acumen, becoming an industry expert, expanding and maintaining your professional network, developing close client relationships and gaining national and international experience.