Sonya Som of Major, Lindsey & Africa describes how a brief stint at a law firm can be a useful way station for lawyers transitioning to the next in-house opportunity.
“Way Station” (noun): a station intermediate between principal stations, as on a railroad, -Dictionary.com
Greetings, in-house counsel friends! One of the main reasons to read my column is because I let you in on some of the “behind the curtains” secrets of the job market—the things that are happening even if no one is publicly talking about them. One such secret is what I call “The Way Station.” This concept is so hush hush that I couldn’t even find anyone willing to speak with me on the record about it, although it is definitely real.
As I have defined it, “The Way Station” is utilized by in-house counsel in transition. Rather than allow a sizeable gap to occur on their resumes, these resourceful in-house counsel are returning to law firms—perhaps for a limited time. Generally, they don’t intend to stay, and the law firms don’t usually expect the former in-house counsel to stay. But, for a time, it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement: The in-house counsel closes the resume gap, remains more desirable as an employed candidate, continues to gain experience—and a paycheck—and receives exposure to the firm’s clients with the potential result that one of those clients will provide a path back in-house. The law firm gains the benefit of the in-house counsel’s savvy from the client perspective. This helps the firm develop enhanced client service, and access to the in-house counsel’s connections for business development. Once the in-house counsel has returned in-house, the law firm’s hope and expectation is that the relationship will continue—as a client relationship.
I have advised pursuing a “Way Station” arrangement to many in-house candidates as they contemplate their transition strategy and can think of about a dozen in recent years who have made this move. Sometimes it is tacitly understood between the in-house counsel and the firm that the arrangement will likely be a temporary one (let’s face it - most in-house lawyers don’t want to go back to a law firm to stay), but just as often, it is expressly discussed and planned as a time-limited stop, with the in-house counsel continuing his or her search for the right in-house role with the full knowledge and support of the law firm.
So, how do you find a good “Way Station”? Most in-house counsel start by reaching out to their own former law firms. If you are well-known and well-liked there and vice versa, and if you have maintained influential relationships (especially by sending business), your former firm is likely the first and best place to inquire. Similarly, law firms to which you have sent significant business over the years and with whom you have enjoyed a good working relationship are natural “Way Station” options to pursue. Firms that represent the kinds of companies in the locations and industries where you would most like to work in-house are natural considerations for a potential “Way Station,” especially if those firms do the kind of work (corporate, M&A, private equity, etc.) that lends itself to strong GC, CEO, board director and other influential C-suite relationships. These are the firms whose clients are likely to seek a GC or other in-house counsel from within the firm’s ranks.
How do you market yourself to such a firm? Coming from an in-house role, you likely won’t have much, if any, business to bring with you on day one, so why would they take you on? Time spent as an in-house counsel developing strong relationships with your in-house peers both within your organization and at other organizations really comes in handy here. Active participation in organizations like In The House or the Association of Corporate Counsel over the years should have netted you many such relationships with peers to whom you can now turn. These peers likely won’t guarantee that they’d give you work, but depending on the depth of your relationship, their existing outside counsel relationships and anticipated needs, they might at least be willing to include you and your new firm in a beauty contest or even just be willing to meet (which might be more than the firm was able to accomplish without you).
Having spent your time as an in-house counsel developing a strong personal brand is helpful as well. Having been interviewed for profiles, spoken on panels, authored articles, received awards, engaged in social media use shows that your name could open some doors to potential clients and that you have an ability and appetite for doing business development for the firm. In-house counsel who have kept their heads down at their desks without developing a strong network and brand are probably not the best candidates for a “Way Station”—unless what the firm needs is someone to do a bunch of existing client work and not to help develop business (and there are usually already enough service attorneys around the firm to do that).
You may believe that you can do business development, but can you really? Do you really want to? You might have gone in-house, in part, because you can’t or don’t want to do it. It’s not as easy as it may look. And a law firm would be right to be skeptical about whether you really have what it takes to be a rainmaker. In addition to doing your homework on the best firm to approach about a “Way Station” arrangement, it is also a good idea to put together a business plan—the same kind of business plan that law firm lateral partners use to market themselves to firms. The exercise of thinking through and writing up a business plan will help organize your thoughts and confirm your resolve and ability to really do business development. Going into a meeting with a law firm with a solid business plan written out will impress the firm and help them seriously consider you for a position (perhaps as a “partner” but more likely as a “counsel,” “of counsel” or “senior counsel”).
In doing business development for a “Way Station” firm — and to give the firm full value and yourself the best possible chance to land your next in-house opportunity — you will have to throw yourself into doing meetings, pitches, articles, panels, and co-hosting and attending events. You’ll also have to get comfortable with asking in-house counsel who were formerly your peers (perhaps even your subordinates) for work. It can be an awkward and uncomfortable position in which to find yourself if you have not prepared yourself mentally and emotionally to go from being an in-house client to being a law firm vendor/supplier/service provider. But if you can manage these nuances, you might even find your time at a “Way Station” enjoyable. You may even choose to stay at the firm if you develop a real appetite and aptitude for developing business and are very successful at it. And, when and if you return in-house, you will be a savvier, and perhaps more understanding/sympathetic client, in dealing with outside counsel.