How to Go In-House without “Prior In-House Experience”

As a recruiter talking to candidates daily, I hear it all of the time- “I want to go in-house.” For a majority of the in-house positions available, especially the more senior positions, a pre-requisite will inevitably stand in the way of the candidate. If not required, “prior in-house experience” is usually preferred. This then begs the question: So how does one get that prior in-house experience without actually having worked in-house?

This paradox is the classic chicken and egg situation. However, there are some things that law firm candidates can do to help bolster their chances of landing an in-house job without the requisite prior in-house experience.

A Secondment. The closest thing to working permanently in-house for a company, is working temporarily in-house for a client of the firm as part of a secondment. First and foremost, the attorneys going on secondments are often chosen directly by the client, firm heads of departments, or the client’s relationship partner. This already speaks volumes to that particularly lawyer’s skills and abilities. Second, what could possibly give a law firm attorney better in-house experience than actually living and breathing that particular company for two months, six months or even a year? During a secondment, a lawyer experiences first-hand what a position in-house would look like– who are the players directly involved with the lawyers on a daily basis; what are the tasks lawyers are called upon to do; what is the place and role of a lawyer within a company; and most importantly, how does the company incorporate real business decisions within the confines of the law. The people making the hiring decisions are certainly aware of the benefits of a secondment and value it when looking at a candidate.

General Counsel Role of a Firm Client. It is not unusual to find attorneys in the corporate department of a firm serving in a general counsel role for smaller clients that do not have their own legal departments. This is an excellent opportunity to gain specific insight into the business dealings of the client and be thrown into the various legal and business issues that would arise while working in-house. Not to mention, if the company eventually decides to employ an attorney in house, who would be better suited than someone who has already been performing this role for the company?

Industry Experience. Who better to know what distribution and supply looks like than someone who works for a manufacturing company? Who better to understand the importance of privacy and data protection than someone who works for a technology company? Industry experience is a valuable commodity. It will set a law firm candidate apart from other firm and even in-house candidates that do not possess the same.

The easiest way to gain industry experience is to be staffed on deals in a particular industry of interest. For a more junior firm attorney, it may be difficult to request staffing on specific deals. An alternative would be to make oneself available for volunteer work—whether it be pro bono counseling within the firm, legal counsel for a local community organization, or board membership. Setting aside self-interest, involvement as a board or a committee member contributes to an organization in a meaningful, unique way. And why not think about the more nuanced but incredibly important messages on your resume? Leadership, management and team-player are skills that can be developed while taking on these roles. Moreover, serving on a board or leading an initiative as a committee member is a great way to signal these qualities to an employer.

Another place to gain industry experience is by joining a trade group as a lawyer. This demonstrates a real interest or affinity. It serves as a powerful networking forum amongst key players in the industry. And, it helps you to “talk the talk”, which could go a long way in an interview!

A Relevant Degree. Being a business-minded individual, one that is entrepreneurial and well-versed with business issues, is paramount. Formal training is one way to gain this credential. An MBA or another relevant degree or certificate is extremely valuable for the lawyer looking to go in-house.

If you have these experiences, do not forget to include and highlight them on your resume and discuss them during an interview. If not, now is a good time to go get them. Whether your end goal is to go in-house or not, these experiences are invaluable as an attorney and will be sure to advance your career in one way or another.

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