As a frequent tweeter (and recruiter) for the In-House Practice Group at Major, Lindsey & Africa, I took modest exception to some of the points made in Corporate Counsel's recent post, "To Go In-House Later, Lay the Groundwork Early," and tweeted a couple of comments accordingly. Once again demonstrating the speed at which the Internet works, I promptly received an email from Corporate Counsel inviting me to post a response — #ChallengeAccepted.
I absolutely agree with the basic premise of the original article: "What moves can a young lawyer make to help land that coveted in-house role? 'Unfortunately, the answer is rarely a simple one,' according to Fernando Garcia, general counsel at Navistar Canada, writing in Canadian Lawyer. 'In fact, it is often the dreaded 'it depends' response.'" Lawyers who in fairly recent years would have happily spent their entire careers in law firms or in the government increasingly are setting their sights on an in-house career.
As Garcia indicates, whether a lawyer actually will be able to make the transition into an in-house career, and whether a lawyer really wants an in-house career and is actually suited to it, depends on many factors. That list of factors can be lengthy' fortunately, several of my colleagues have explored them—from opposing points of view, at that—and they can be read about in "Law Firm to In-House: a Different Type of Mountain but Not Insurmountable," "Law Firms to In-House" Things to Consider Before Climbing Mountains"; and other postings on Major, Lindsey & Africa's InBrief blog.
Garcia offers three suggestions on how lawyers who are early in their careers "can increase their chances" at making a move in-house. Before taking action, I think the three points from the earlier post are worth some careful consideration:
"Take the Right Courses: 'During law school, take business courses as electives,' suggests Garcia. Since the role of a corporate counsel is both lawyer and member of the business team, this extra academic experience could prove useful."
I have no real argument with this point. Business courses taken as an undergraduate, a law student and a professional can be of great benefit to any private practice lawyer, regardless of whether he/she wishes to go in-house. All clients, both in-house and external, increasingly expect business savvy and insight as part of the legal counsel they receive from their lawyers, and taking courses is one way to gain knowledge and demonstrate you possess the requisite skills. In fact, one law firm has recently begun putting its new lawyers through a mini MBA boot camp.
"Make Your Goals Known: Although it may seem tricky if you’re working in private practice, Garcia suggests making it known to firm partners and mentors that you're interested in going in-house someday."
This is where Garcia and I respectfully begin to part ways. It is fairly widely known that most in-house legal departments depend upon law firms to provide lawyers with a certain amount of rigorous training for a few years before bringing them in-house. What is perhaps not as widely or openly discussed is that law firms are beginning to grumble a bit about this arrangement, especially since corporate clients are increasingly unwilling to underwrite the cost of this training by paying for billable time spent on their matters by young associates. Just as a firm finally sees an opportunity to begin to receive a return on their investment in training a great associate, a corporate legal department (often a client) will scoop him/her up. And the firm frankly doesn't need but so many "friends on the inside" at any one client.
While Garcia does point out that making one's goal to go in-house known can be "tricky" and that it "will obviously affect your future working at the firm you are in," I think it is worth noting that, if broached too soon, in the wrong manner and with the wrong individuals at the wrong time, this can have a disastrous effect on your career. What if you come to discover that you don't actually want to go in-house or that you can't? If you have not carefully used a deft hand in expressing your interest, you could find yourself out of a job or becoming persona non grata. While I certainly agree that networking is an important component of positioning yourself for an in-house position, I must say:proceed with caution!
"Take a Chance: Apply for jobs that may seem to require more experience or qualifications than you currently have. Even if you don’t get the role, you’ll be on the radar for future opportunities."
On behalf of my fellow recruiters both inside and outside of Major, Lindsey & Africa, I most selfishly and strongly advise the use of caution and good judgment with regard to this final (though certainly well-meaning) piece of advice. Relationships in the legal industry are very important—within firms, with corporate counsel and with recruiters, both internal corporate and external agency recruiters. Repeatedly applying to the same company or the same search firm—even to different individuals within the same organization (we generally share a common database)—will put you on recruiters' radars, but not the way you want. When you submit your resume again and again for role after role for which you are clearly and significantly under- or over-qualified, you can earn a reputation as a "frequent flier,"—and land on a recruiter's "no fly" list. Your applications are no longer scrutinized the same way. You become the applicant who cried wolf and then, when an opportunity comes along for which you would actually be perfect, you have already squandered all of your credibility since you've demonstrated that you lack discernment. Again, I advise: proceed with caution!
While I appreciate Garcia’s positive attitude and experience, I strongly advise lawyers interested in moving in-house to do your due diligence. In fact, I feel so strongly about this, I am working with a colleague on a blog post about the things you should know before applying for in-house positions. Make sure you really want to move in-house; carefully consider whether this really is the best next step for you and your career; and once you've decided this is how you want to proceed with your career, be smart about it.
See the full-feature article on Corporate Counsel, June 22, 2015.
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Sonya Olds Som is a managing director in Major, Lindsey & Africa's Chicago office and is primarily responsible for leading networking, business development and marketing initiatives for the in-house practice group in the Midwest. Prior to joining Major, Lindsey & Africa in 2010, she focused her practice on the representation of business clients on a wide variety of corporate immigration-related matters worldwide as a law firm associate, partner and practice group leader at several of the nation’s leading firms.