How To Know When It's Time To Go In-House

By Melissa Maleske, Law360

If you've ever toyed with the idea of taking a law department gig, you've probably also wondered whether it will serve your career better to flee BigLaw the first chance you get or wait it out. Here are some milestones that can tell you when the time is right to make the in-house jump.

You Have the Soft Skills

At a law firm, you're valued if you display intelligence, precision and the abilities to work hard, tackle complicated subject matter and grow a book of business. In-house, those skills may come into play, but companies won't prioritize them.

"When you go in-house, they expect you to be a fairly sophisticated, intelligent, organized individual who also has excellent judgment and emotional intelligence," says Mike Sachs, a partner at Major Lindsey & Africa LLC. "Judgment and emotional intelligence are absolutely paramount, and if you don't possess those traits, you're not going to be successful in-house."

Along with serving as GC, Jaeger is head of human resources at Jockey, which means he recruits for the entire company, including the legal department. He says it's important to get a sense of how in-house counsel will communicate and interact with the full range of business clients.

"Some will be sophisticated and hard-charging, and you've got to have the confidence to work with those kind of folks," Jaeger says. "But you also need to be able to adjust to work with front-line people or distribution center employees and be able to communicate clearly, effectively and with respect."

Sachs says the soft skills aren't going to be the ones your law firm will train you on, but they're strengths that will develop naturally over the years as you learn to depose witnesses; speak to judges; write and revise complex briefs; and work with partners, clients and paralegals. When your soft skills are at their peak, it's time to go in-house, he says.

You're About to Make Partner

Maybe your ultimate career goal is to land in a law department but you don't necessarily hate your law firm work. Why not stick around and see if you can make partner?

Evers cautions that a funny thing happens when you become a partner. Suddenly, you're overqualified and overpaid for the typical entry-level in-house positions, and you find yourself competing for the most senior law department roles against the lawyers who moved in-house the more conventional way: taking a counsel job as a fifth- or sixth-year associate and working their way up the corporate ladder.

"Those individuals are more desirable from the company's standpoint than someone who's been at a law firm for 15 years," Evers says. "They're higher-risk hires who may not transition well into the in-house department."

After they've spent 20 years in a law firm, most people have trouble with that transition, Sachs says. Some do it successfully, but enough have faltered over the years that corporations are skeptical. They'll also second-guess whether you're happy after taking a significant pay cut, which is going to be necessary for most BigLaw partners.

"There can come a point when you've worked at a law firm so long that you think like a law firm attorney, you act like a law firm attorney and you've lived your life for 10 to 20 years like a law firm attorney, and being a law firm attorney and a corporate attorney are just really different career paths," Sachs says. "Making partner has nothing to do with it — it's more, will you take a cut in compensation and will you be able to adjust?"

Read more of this article at Law360.


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