You are a rock star associate. You got good grades in law school. You have worked hard these first few years in Big Law and are making a name for yourself. You have done all the right things to prepare yourself for the next step in your career — a move in-house — and you have your eye on the big prize: Google, Amazon, Facebook.
However, you have interview after interview without success. You are working your network and making connections, but you keep getting consistent feedback: your experience does not match the role. What gives?
For starters, the profile for an in-house lawyer is different than that of a law firm associate. While law firm associates specialize in one area of the law, in-house lawyers are generalists who are typically well versed in a variety of areas of the law. So, if your career thus far has focused you in one industry or one area of the law, consider branching out to gain more experience.
In-house departments also want lawyers with business acumen, or at the very least, someone who understands how a business functions. Leadership is going to expect its legal team to be agile and operate in line with the business’s vision, strategy and goals. The business strategy is often very different from that of a law firm as their customer base has different wants and needs than that of a law firm serving a business. A pre-existing understanding of how an organization operates will be important. If you don’t have that baseline knowledge, start by learning more about how your clients’ businesses operate.
The number of years you have been practicing can also be a factor. There may be a wider talent pool ahead of you with more years of experience. If you are interviewing against those candidates, you will likely lose out on a role, especially if they already have in-house experience. Competition for in-house roles is high, and legal departments are looking to fill open positions with candidates who have specific qualifications and experience.
There is a general sweet spot for moving from a law firm to an in-house role – around the mid-senior level. Before that, look for opportunities at your existing firm (or consider a lateral move) to gain the requisite skills and experience you need to build up your resume. Most importantly, be realistic about the realities of the job market.
Steps to Prepare for Making a Move In-House
Step 1: Seek opportunities at your current law firm. Who is working with top clients? What practice areas are strongest and ripe with opportunities? Where can you get the best client exposure? Gain an understanding of your current situation and look for opportunities for more growth.
Step 2: Have a conversation. Once you’ve wrapped your head around all the possibilities in your current firm, schedule time to talk with your partners. Don’t be afraid to open up about your career goals, the clients you would like to work with or the other areas of law you would like to explore. Ask for suggestions for how to reach your goals, and listen to their advice. You are not the first associate with in-house aspirations; they will understand.
Step 3: Try to gain new skills and experiences. Once you have identified the opportunities within your current firm, look for matters that will stretch you. If you are an employment litigator, try to incorporate more counseling into your practice; if you are in finance, try to get some M&A/PE and securities experience; if you are an M&A associate, try a little soft IP/trademark work. To supplement that experience, look outside the firm for volunteer opportunities and take on pro bono work. Seek additional learning experiences from multiple avenues.
Step 4: Go where the work is. Do you want to work for Apple? Is your dream to run legal for an international bank one day? If that’s where you want to go, do your due diligence to find the law firms that work with those specific clients—or at least clients in the same industry. The best way to prove your value to a legal department is to work for that company as outside counsel. Increase your chances of moving in-house by making a lateral move to the law firm that works closely with the organization. Work your network and chat with your peers at other firms to find out what they are working on, attend association events to make new connections, and partner with a legal recruiter who can provide you with the intel you are looking for.
Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint. The path you take should be planned out in order to reach the final destination. If you have specific goals in mind, you may need to make changes on the path to success, but trust us, the persistence will pay off.