Once you’ve decided — either on your own, or with the help of your law firm review — to make the move in-house, what do you do next? The first thing to decide upon is a method to your madness. Disclaimer: If you’ve been engaged in a search for some time, or you are happily ensconced in a position that you love (which is impressive!), my next few columns are not for you. They will be lacking in gossip, or inside baseball stories of life in-house. Because the majority of mail I receive is in regard to the jump to in-house life, I have decided to devote a few columns to the nuts and bolts of making the leap.
There are so many companies of all sizes that looking for an in-house job can make looking for a law firm job seem like child’s play. There are public companies, privately-held entities, government contractors, non-profits, and so on. Start your search by considering company specialty — what the company does needs to match something in your career background. You wouldn’t seek a transactional securities position without any knowledge of the securities laws. It also helps to have at least touched upon the area of law in your private practice. However, it may not preclude you from a position if you’ve not written the latest securities treatise. If the company is a small entity with zero to five current counsel, your general legal knowledge will get you noticed far more than knowledge in a discrete area of law.
Companies of all sizes can be funny animals when looking for legal advisors. The most sought after trait is sound business judgment — something that is rarely discernible in the interview process. It may surprise you, but a less valued item, at least in the business world, is the rank of your law school according to the U.S. News survey….
If you are interviewing at a large corporation, you’ll likely be meeting with a host of former private firm practitioners. While clerkships, etc. are certainly valued as life experience, these folks put much less weight into where you graduated from, and focus more on whether you can pull your weight autonomously. It can be jarring, when entering a team environment, as opposed to eating what you kill, to find yourself in the position of finding your place, as opposed to trying to be a rock star. While a 24/7 law firm work ethic may be appreciated by your new clients, it may not be necessary, or even appropriate to the success of your new team.
Funny thing, but in-house legal is not the end all and be all that private firm practice can be made out to be. The OGC cost center is often forced to justify its place on the books. Especially in smaller entities, it is not uncommon for the folks running the show to question why they even need an OGC. Of course, smarter heads prevail when the wisdom of having at least one legal advisor on staff becomes apparent. Either then, or when the first federal complaint arrives on the desk of the CEO’s administrative assistant and gets put into a pile of to-do mail where it is discovered after the date to answer has passed.
Once you’ve parsed your areas of interest and experience, and matched them with appropriate companies in locales where you’d like to settle, the next obvious step is to find out if there are positions available. Notice how I used the word settle instead of “live temporarily until your loans are paid off.” Companies usually look for someone willing to settle in their location. They will go to great lengths to ascertain if you are someone who is simply looking for a job, or someone who is making a career move that will benefit the company long-term.
It goes without saying that exploring your network of contacts should be your first step. Depending upon your class year, this may not be extensive enough to be useful. However, it’s always best, and easiest, to be able to find out about positions from someone who knows you, and your work, and can recommend you inside. If you don’t have access to a job postings board like that on the Association of Corporate Counsel website, you can seek a headhunter, or hit as many company websites as possible and see what positions are available. This is the scut work of the search. If you’ve been looking for legal positions, you’ve probably been doing this ad nauseam, and unfortunately, the exercise is largely the same.
That said, I am surprised at how many folks don’t simply check company websites. Companies, moreso than law firms, really don’t want to put the money into legal search firms (and their fees), and usually post open positions on their sites. There are exceptions to any rule, of course, and dependent on the level of counsel being sought, the information may not be available.
Given that, the headhunter route may be more palatable. There are many reputable search firms, and the edge they have is information that may not be available to you. They may subscribe to the ACC site, or other sites, and have postings information that you don’t. As always, you can sign on with a recruiter and concurrently conduct your search. Please don’t bombard me with comments on how this can be disingenuous — if they find the gig for you, they get paid, if they don’t, they don’t.
So, your search is underway. Congratulations on making the choice to seek a new position. Next time, what to do before that résumé leaves your hands, or you write a cover letter that is really just an opportunity to screw up your chances.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.