Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Job Searches, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: Odd Misperceptions Of Job Qualifications

Two years ago, my company had to hire a lawyer to serve as our head of litigation for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa). We weren’t using a recruiter, so we had to locate candidates the old-fashioned way — by putting the word out. I called one of my former partners (a 60-ish corporate partner, who did a lot of work with European clients) and asked if he could spread the word in Europe that we had a position open. He startled me:

“You don’t have to do a job search. I’ll do that job for you.”

“Excuse me,” I stammered. “You do M&A work. You speak only English. You’ve never litigated in a common law country, let alone a civil law one. How could that job possibly make any sense for you?”

“Managing litigation isn’t very hard. It’s really a matter of knowing how to handle the outside lawyers. And given all the time I’ve spent doing deals in Europe, I have that skill down cold. Let me be your head of litigation for EMEA.”

I had forgotten entirely about that conversation until I had lunch last week with a 40-ish litigator at a different Vault 20 firm. He, too, didn’t understand that corporations are different from law firms; at corporations, the specifics of your work experience matter . . .

We recently had an opening for a corporate lawyer whose job would be to advise a business unit about transactional and regulatory issues. The job does not involve litigation, which a different lawyer handles. But my Vault-20-litigator lunch date (how’s that for a facacta-compound-hyphenated-adjectival phrase?) didn’t much care:

“On paper, it may not look like I’m the perfect person for your job. But I did well in law school, and I’m a partner at a fancy firm, and I know how to read cases. I’ve litigated in dozens of different areas of law; it’s not hard to figure things out. If you hire me, it’ll take me six months to get up to speed, and then I’ll be the perfect guy for your job.”

If we draw conclusions from my random sample of two people, then lawyers at firms don’t seem to think that experience matters. Lawyers are fungible; smart lawyers can do any job; corporations should figure that a good lawyer’s a good lawyer and stop the screening process right there.

To my eye, that’s not how corporations should think, and it surely is not how they do think.

For the EMEA head of litigation, we found a lawyer with about ten years experience litigating (at a large firm) throughout Europe in our very industry. She lives in Europe and speaks Dutch, German, and French in addition to English, so she can actually read many of the pleadings filed on our behalf. When the choice was mine, qualifications mattered.

And I’m easy compared to other in-house folks. I recently heard someone ruling out candidates for a job in compliance based on extraordinarily narrow grounds: “Yeah, yeah. This candidate has worked in compliance for ten years. But not in our industry. And this other candidate has worked in compliance in our industry for ten years, but only in parts of the world that have a low-regulatory, high-compliance-risk environment. I need someone who’s worked in a high-regulatory, low-risk environment.”

I’m a pushover: I’m ready to hire someone whose qualifications put him in the right neighborhood. Other in-house folks are seemingly looking for bulls-eyes (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor).

Hiring at big law firms is pretty easy. For new associates, hire the lawyers who graduated highest in the class at the best schools. Over time, some of those people will pan out. For laterals, look for people with books of business in the niche you’re trying to fill. Hope they’re telling the truth about the business they’ll bring. End of hiring story. (I didn’t say this made sense or was a happy tale. I’m just stating the facts.)

Hiring at corporations is very, very different. If you decide to look for an in-house job, remember that your perception of your qualifications (“I’m a great lawyer! Hire me!”) may neither distinguish you from the pack nor earn you the interview you’re seeking. Tailor your résumé accordingly, and think hard about what you’ll say at interviews.

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at

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