Making The Transition to an In-House Position

As a legal recruiter, we focus exclusively on the permanent placement of attorneys in both law firm and in-house settings. In short, we speak to lawyers at varying levels every day all day! During those conversations, we often hear lawyers express their desire to “go in-house”. The in-house market is extremely competitive, so how do you go about actually securing the right in-house position?

  1. Keep yourself informed about the market. The right job at the right company that fits your background, experience, and interest is hard to find and can take ample time. Therefore, start listening to options now! We do not suggest mass-mailing your resume to a bunch of companies and recruiters; but rather, read about the marketplace of interest to you, and talk with recruiters that are well-connected to that in-house world. Visit regularly to get an idea about the types of opportunities that are publicly advertised. There is nothing wrong with “seeing” what is out there – the decision whether to actually explore an opportunity is a decision you can make later on, after you have a sense of the marketplace.
  2. Determine your industry of interest and target it. The importance of determining your own interest level in a specific business/industry cannot be overstated. If you are a litigator, but have zero interest in the energy sector, then applying to that job at a well-known energy company may not be the best use of your time. We understand that you want to “go in-house” but it has to be somewhat targeted and connected to your interest and experience. This point really comes to light in interviews. Frequently, an Associate General Counsel or the General Counsel himself/herself will ask you why you want to join his/her company. When you answer too generically with “My goal has always been to go in-house” or “I really see myself contributing to a company”, it does not effectively convey that you are the best candidate for the position. If you truly have an interest or experience with the industry, it is more effective, and ultimately can lead to a better fit for you! So if you are just starting to think about going to a company, take some time to determine the industry that excites you – the one that you can authentically envision yourself working in for the next several years.
  3. Seek out opportunities for experience with that industry of interest. Once you have determined the industry that interests you, make sure you currently have or seek to gain relevant experience. If you are a corporate lawyer looking to go in-house, you will likely need to gain some experience with securities regulation, so seek out projects that will expose you to the Securities Exchange Acts of 1933 and 1934. If you are a litigator looking for an in-house position, you will likely need some management experience, including managing junior attorneys and paralegals and/or managing large-scale litigation. Try to seek out projects that will give you some exposure to those skills so that you can position yourself for the transition. Make sure that you represent that industry experience on your resume. If the in-house position you want involves “corporate governance experience”, be sure to highlight that experience clearly on your resume. Make it an easily visible bullet point or section on your resume with the phrase “corporate governance” in it, and then expand upon it, explaining all of your experience within that realm. Do not make the company and/or the recruiter search for that experience on your resume – make it clearly stated, concisely described with examples, and using the industry jargon.
  4. Maintain realistic expectations about salary. Do not let the proffered salary range of an in-house position dictate your interest at the preliminary stages of exploring an opportunity. The way law firms compensate you is often very different than the compensation packages offered at companies. If, for example, you are a partner at a large law firm right now, you might be earning a significant base salary plus bonus (which is usually somehow tied to your originations). At a company, you might be looking at a base salary that is lower than your current base salary; however, the target bonus can be significant. Overall, the compensation package at a company may equal or exceed your current income, but you have to consider the total compensation package. Try not to make a quick decision just by comparing current law firm base salary to prospective company base salary. Also, remember that stock options may be part of the package immediately or down the line.
  5. Do not be misled by the title of the in-house position. Recently, we had a conversation with a well-established law firm partner at a national firm, and he expressed his desire to “go in-house”. He told me that he had interviewed for an in-house position awhile ago, but the title was too “junior” for his level, so he decided against it. He knew himself well enough to know that taking that position would feel like a step down in his career. That is a salient point to consider – is title a big issue for you? Consider that and know your feelings about title, but also understand that in-house titles can vary widely from organization to organization. One company may have a “Corporate Counsel” opening that is a fairly “junior” position, whereas another company may have that position report directly to the General Counsel. A lot of that depends on the size of the organization and more importantly, the size of the legal team within the organization. Find out as much as you can about the organizational hierarchy of the legal team and company to help educate your interest in the position.
  6. Decide about relocation. Take stock of your current situation and decide whether you are willing to relocate for the right in-house position. That is a question that we always ask my candidates who are interested in transitioning to a company – are you willing to relocate? If so, how far are you willing to relocate? If the company does not provide relocation assistance, are you willing to cover the cost on your own? It is never too soon to start thinking about those answers, so that you can really make your in-house search targeted and realistic.
  7. Manage your own frustration level! Understand that making the transition to the right in-house opportunity may take time and patience; more than you might think! Of course, there are always anecdotal examples of your co-worker who was directly poached by his/her client, and landed a great in-house job in record time. That is most certainly the exception, not the rule, so set realistic expectations about this transition. Typically, the frustration that lawyers feel about trying to make this transition is not that they are going on various interviews and not getting the job, but rather that there are not ample opportunities that fit their skill sets. Waiting for the right opportunity to come to you will only add to your frustration, whereas taking an active and targeted approach will increase your chance of success.

Making the transition from a law firm to a company can be a lengthy and time-consuming process. That is why being proactive about your transition, determining your industry of interest, and partnering with a knowledgeable recruiter will all help you to ultimately identify and attain the right in-house position.

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