As a lawyer progresses in his in-house career, chances are he will reach a crossroads and decide it is time to make a change. Sometimes that change is as traditional as switching to a peer company or advancing up the corporate ladder, but other times, they are looking to make a bigger splash and change industries entirely—which becomes a bit more complex.
As a general rule, the longer you work in one industry, the more difficult it is to switch. Most of the time, when companies are hiring—and particularly when they are hiring through an executive search firm like Major, Lindsey & Africa—they are looking for a very specific background and exact experience, which translates into an ability to get up to speed quickly. Companies have high expectations. They know what they want, including someone who knows the particulars of an industry, the other players and the challenges that industry may face. They are also aware that a candidate who has worked in the industry will likely know outside counsel who work best with their industry needs, have contacts in the industry who can be leveraged and belong to groups of similarly experienced peers (and if they are hiring a search firm, they are expecting their exact criteria to be met).
While it may sound impossible to shift industries, we as lawyers are trained to find loopholes—and a few do exist to help you get your foot in the door of a new industry:
- Stay in the family. The easiest way to switch industries is to move into a closely related one. If you are in pharmaceuticals, consider a medical device company or another highly regulated industry, for example. These similarly situated companies will be looking for talent that can quickly navigate the nuances of their field. If you have relatable experience, you will be able to more easily transition without having to brush up on every regulation within that industry; and for those you will need to learn, you will already have demonstrated your ability to get up to speed just by having held your previous role.
- Capitalize on your skills. Many of the skills you use daily will be valuable to a new employer—and the more unique those skills are, the less focus will be placed on your industry experience. For example, crisis management or change management experience will be extremely appealing to a company bouncing back from a tough time or being acquired. Also, if you have experience as general counsel of a public company and have worked closely with a board of directors, another public company may appreciate your existing ability to be a partner in the boardroom. Do your research and identify which of your transferable skills will be most beneficial to a company you are considering in a different industry and leverage those.
- Lean on your connections. This is where who you know and building your network early in your career really matters. If you want to switch industries, take advantage of that someone you know who can hire you or help you get introduced to someone in another industry. When you have made the right connections and a name for yourself in the legal community, those connections are likely to know (and recognize) your skills, reputation and potential and give you a chance because they realize you are smart and can do the job. They will have seen you prove yourself time and time again throughout your career and have confidence in your abilities. This is often the case with your outside counsel. Your outside counsel is highly motivated to help you segue into a new role and can speak to your gravitas, overall intelligence and skillset.
- Downsize your reach. Sometimes the answer is to move to a smaller company where your experience will be valued above all else. Startups and more niche companies are more likely to prioritize your overall expertise as a “must have” rather than your background in a specific industry. Also the smaller company experience will likely require you to utilize a broader range of skills, which will enhance your arsenal of transferrable skills should the time come to make another career move into a larger organization.
- Take a step back. If swimming in the big pond is as important to you as switching industries, then consider taking a lesser role in a larger company. The higher up the totem pole the role, the more exacting the requirements will be for the person the hiring manager desires. Your lack of experience in the industry will most likely eliminate you from consideration for the general counsel role, but your experience in M&A may make you the perfect fit for a senior attorney role within the legal department.
Switching industries in the legal profession is not the easiest of feats, but it can be done if you are willing to be patient and keep an open mind when an opportunity does present itself. If you think the next step in your career is to change course, start building up your network and investing in the skills you will need to become a viable candidate in a new industry.