It is a hyperbole to say "everyone wants to go in-house." Yet, the fact I speak to so many law firm attorneys who express this sentiment sure makes it seem true.
Of the many reasons given why, partners and associates inevitably point to their distaste for business development. That is, the constant pressure to "make rain" by any means necessary: chatting up the neighbor or the kid's friend's parents; speaking on panels and publishing articles; even cold calling or emailing.
Business development—in a dreaded word, sales—is at once anathema to many lawyers and a fact of life in today’s business of law.
Notice what isn't said, that business development is a fact of life in law firms. That's because (surprise!) sales is part of the gig when you move in-house, too.
Moreover, I posit that salesmanship is even more important once you're ensconced within the warm embrace of corporate America.
My own experience as in-house counsel, which has only been reinforced from my time as a recruiter speaking routinely with GCs and CEOs, is fighting a never-ending battle to gain and then maintain trust and credibility with the business. Lawyers are a cost, a resource to be utilized—or not—by the business, i.e., those who make the company money. Accordingly, in-house counsel must demonstrate their value every day they draw a paycheck, which are funds the business would otherwise happily deploy elsewhere if given the chance.
This means if your business client doesn't like you, if she thinks you're talking down to her or that you can't by relied on to give a straight answer, she'll stop calling … just like in private practice. Except now your client sits down the hall from you, and your compensation—and likely your career trajectory—is tied to the success of her business goals.
When I counsel lawyers about in-house practice, especially those who've never been on the company side, I readily admit the greatest professional compliments I've received were those times where someone called and said, "I know this isn't a legal question, but I just wanted to run this by you." That's the imprimatur—the stamp of approval from the business. They like you; they want to hear what you have to say.
Likeability in corporate America cannot be overstated.
So the bad news is in-house life requires lawyers to utilize their "sales" skills (e.g., being personable and relatable to non-lawyers); being able to influence without control and without an air of superiority; being able to make connections up and down the org chart—on an everyday basis.
There's worse news: these so-called soft skills are just enough to ensure day-to-day survival. In order to thrive in-house, you have to take your sales game to the next level. You have to go outside your comfort zone and make connections beyond your legal specialty and, more important, outside the Legal Department. You need to cultivate allies and rabbis and spirit guides—from Tax, from Operations, from other Business Units or regions—who will advocate for you when it comes time to fill that open spot several rungs up the ladder.
The worst news of all is that, should you have ambition to become the next GC of a Fortune 500 company, you have to go all-out in your sales pitch, which needs to be honed to a professional-grade. At this point, you have to be known throughout your industry and sector, respected not only by your legal peers but by business professionals. The C-level executives and Board members who hire the GC—and the legal recruiters who assist them—are not going to take a chance on an unknown commodity.
If you've made it this far without stopping in despair and longing for a system where the cream simply rises to the top on accord of its innate superiority, I leave you with a message of positivity and actualization: All the sales-talk and business development-speak boils down to one simple thing— networking.
Good old fashioned one-on-one relationships. With other human beings.
Whether in a law firm or a corporate legal department, we sell ourselves, our ability and our credibility on a daily basis. That doesn't stop throughout our careers. The sooner you recognize and embrace the challenge, the sooner you'll take charge of your future.
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Ryan B. Whitacre joined Major, Lindsey & Africa following more than 12 years of legal practice that included tenure in large law firms and the in-house legal departments of a $22 billion privately-held food distributor and a publicly-traded real estate investment trust. This breadth of experience affords him a unique perspective, which he offers to clients who are seeking the right fit for a variety of legal positions at all levels in their respective enterprises. Ryan can be reached at (312) 288-4914 and firstname.lastname@example.org.