When it comes to in-house legal jobs, the demand typically outweighs the supply. There are numerous reasons why many lawyers desire an in-house position, including: relief from the relentless pressure of billable hours; the relatively appealing work-life balance with greater control over their schedule; the strong benefits packages offered by large companies; the desire to work closely with business managers; the perceived lack of a need for business development when practicing in house; and many others. While the demand is high the number of positions is restricted, so there are often hundreds of smart, successful lawyers interested in any given in- house position. As a result, a well-executed job search strategy can go a long way towards optimizing your chances of landing one of these coveted positions. On the flip side, even the most qualified lawyers who attended Ivy League schools and worked at Am Law 100 firms can struggle to find an in-house job if they rely only on their credentials. The process of finding an in-house job is indeed a "process," and often a lengthy one at that, so patience is key. Some other tips to avoid sabotaging your in-house job search include:
Make networking a priority
Many in-house legal jobs are found through personal connections, so professional networking is probably the single most important thing you can do to increase your chances of landing a coveted in-house position. When general counsel have openings in their legal departments, their first step often is to reach out to their professional networks for recommendations and referrals. As a result, when an opening arises that might be of interest to you, your mutual connections with the GC will be in a position to let you know about the opportunity. This is a key first step because when you learn about an in-house job through an existing member of the company's legal team, you then can send your resume directly to your contact, and that person can make sure it gets directly into the hands of the hiring authority. When working to grow and strengthen your professional connections, you may find some helpful suggestions in my article with tips for expanding your network.
Be selective, and be honest with yourself when assessing fit
The high demand for in-house legal jobs means tough competition with other well-credentialed attorneys interested in the same position. While it's certainly important to sell yourself in your cover letters and other interactions with recruiters and HR personnel, don't risk your reputation by trying to make yourself appear to be a perfect fit for a position when your background isn't a match with the job description. There are many different criteria that companies use to assess fit including: experience working at a company in their same industry; desired practice areas or types of substantive work background; a history of working in a certain geographic location (i.e. "local candidates only"); number of years of relevant experience; current compensation; pedigree (i.e. J.D. from a top-tier law school and/or experience working at an Am Law 100 firm); and many others. If you meet most of the requirements but not all of them, being upfront about the boxes you don't check can go a long way in establishing your credibility. Be particularly mindful of this when applying for jobs through search firms, because if you reach out to the same search firm to apply for dozens of jobs with a wide range of criteria, the recruiters will likely notice this and realize you are not being selective in your search.
Spend time working on your resume
Many lawyers have kept the basic format of their resume the same since they graduated from law school, adding to it when they change jobs but keeping everything else the same. However, the longer you've been a working professional the less relevant your early career experience may become, so make sure to revisit your resume frequently. In addition, the type of work done by in-house lawyers typically differs drastically from the work done by law firm lawyers, so the desired background and talents usually are different as well. To tailor your resume to showcase the background and skills sought by corporate legal departments, consider highlighting your experience dealing with boards of directors, handling routine and varied legal tasks, helping companies to generate revenue (i.e through negotiating and advising on deals such as mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, partnerships, strategic alliances, etc.), providing day-to-day advice to C-suite executives and working in a matrix environment. Before submitting your resume for a potential in-house job, you may want to consider reviewing my article with resume tips for in-house attorneys.
Inform your professional network (especially law firm partners) that you're interested in finding a new position
A general counsel's professional network typically includes a number of their trusted outside counsel, which is why it's common for law firm attorneys to get their first in-house job offer from a client of their firm. General counsel often have strong relationships with their outside law firms and trust their recommendations, so when a GC's relationship partner recommends someone at his or her firm, the GC generally will put a lot of weight on that recommendation. It's always a judgment call as to whom you should tell about your search because you don't want to jeopardize your job because you've expressed an interest in leaving your current employer. On the flip side you also don't want to be the best kept secret on the job market, so there's a delicate balancing act to be navigated. If you don't feel comfortable telling anyone who has a relationship with your current employer about your job search, a safer option would be to reach out to partners at your former law firms, as well as your former colleagues, classmates, and outside counsel.
Take the time to write non-generic cover letters and thank you notes
Writing cover letters can be time consuming, especially when done correctly, though I have seen them make the difference in whether or not a candidate gets an interview. I find that time spent preparing carefully crafted cover letters is time well spent. I also have seen post-interview thank you notes make a big impact on hiring decisions, so I always recommend taking the time to send a personally tailored thank you note after your interviews. You can find all of my suggestion on these topics in my articles on cover letters and thank you notes.
Reach out to multiple recruiting firms
When searching for an in-house job you are likely to get some useful tips from talking to legal recruiters in your area, since those recruiters will have a thorough understanding of the local market and of the key desires of corporate legal departments. However, make sure to provide your resume to as many search firms as possible because in the executive search (retained/exclusive) arena, there is generally only one recruiting firm working on any given opening. Also, keep in mind that the search firms' clients are the companies, not the candidates, and the recruiters' work will be driven by their clients' needs and wants. In addition, when companies hire retained search firms such as Major, Lindsey & Africa, those companies expect the recruiters to find candidates who meet all of their requirements. As a result, the search firm will always focus on finding candidates who check all of the boxes listed on the job description. That means that if you meet "almost all" of the requirements for a particular job, but not all of them, there's a good possibility the recruiter will tell you that you aren't the best fit for the role. Companies are generally a bit more forgiving when they aren't paying a fee to a search firm, so if you see an online job posting by a company that is looking to hire an in-house attorney directly it's a good idea to apply if you meet almost all of the requirements.
Take the time to prepare for calls and meetings with recruiters and with the hiring companies.
Most lawyers realize the importance of preparing for job interviews when they have a meeting scheduled with the perspective employer [to help you get ready for this step in the process, you may find some helpful tips in my series of articles on preparing for an in-house job interview]. However, not all attorneys realize the importance of their interactions with search firms. Making a good impression on outside recruiters is key because they are gatekeepers for the company, and they can do a lot to advocate for you with their clients. Remember that you will be evaluated during each interaction you have with the recruiters, so you should treat them the same way you would treat the perspective employer and approach every interaction with an outside recruiter as an interview. Also, keep in mind that the recruiter works for their client, not for you, so if you don't make a good impression on the recruiter you may not have an opportunity to showcase your talent to the perspective employer. As a result, dress in appropriate attire for meetings with recruiters, be prompt and professional during calls and meetings, and respect the advice given to you. If you don't, not only do you risk not getting a chance to interview for the job for which you were interacting with the recruiter, but you may also hurt your chances of getting that recruiter and their firm to present you to other clients when future searches arise.
Don't rule out open positions based solely on the job title.
I have seen many lawyers decide not to apply for a great in-house job opening because of a perception that the position is a step down for them based solely on the job title. For instance, an associate general counsel may feel that a senior counsel position at another company would be a demotion, when in reality that is not always a fair assumption to make because the responsibilities that accompany job titles vary greatly from company to company. At some companies a senior counsel position may report directly to the general counsel and have many direct reports, while at another company it could be a junior level job title. I think it's much more important to focus on the job responsibilities and how the position falls into the company's overall reporting structure. Given the infrequency with which good in-house opportunities come along, I never recommend ruling out a position based only on a job title. It may truly be the case that a given position would be a step down, in which case I wouldn't recommend pursuing that opportunity, but it's best not to make that decision based on the job title alone.
Be as flexible as possible with geography
Given the high demand for in-house jobs, the more opportunities you pursue the more likely you are to find an opening that potentially could be a good fit for you. When you limit your search to just a few geographic areas, your options are limited just to the companies in those areas that happen to have a need for someone with your skill set at the exact time that you are looking for a new opportunity. In corporate legal departments, general counsel typically have payroll and headcount caps for their departments so they can't add someone to their team just because that person is a great lawyer with an interest. This is very different than the law firm environment where attorneys are the revenue source for the employer so if an attorney has a large book of portable business or otherwise has the ability to generate revenue for a firm, the firm likely (and wisely) will want to speak with that attorney. Aside from potential conflicts, law firms generally don't have anything limiting the number of revenue-generating attorneys they can employ at any given time. On the in-house side of legal practice, however, it's extremely rare that attorneys generate revenue so the hiring is very needs-based. Corporate legal departments only hire when they have a specific need for someone with a particular skill set at a specific experience level, so the more you can be flexible about geographic location the more options will be available to you.
Finding an in-house legal job may seem like a daunting task at times, but there are ways to increase your chances of landing a new position sooner rather than later. Given the relative scarcity of open positions, luck and timing certainly both play a part in the equation, though by following the tips outlined above you may help increase your chances of moving on to a new opportunity quickly. And when the time comes that you receive an in-house job offer, you may find some helpful tips in my article on Do's and Don'ts When Negotiating Your Compensation Package, and also my article on How (and Why) to Resign Gracefully from your current job.
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Kimberly Lerman is a Director in our In-House Practice Group's Atlanta office. She specializes in placing attorneys in corporate legal departments in a wide range of industries, including financial services, retail, technology, manufacturing, healthcare and consumer services.