TWO STEPPING: When Can A Move To Another Law Firm Aid Your In-House Aspirations?

Associates, especially those at top international law firms, are viewing their time spent in private practice as a stepping stone to an in-house career. Many in-house opportunities are for mid-level associates, with 4-6 years being the “sweet spot”. If a company is seeking a more senior attorney, chances are the most competitive candidates will be coming from another company, not a law firm.

An associate thus has a relatively small window of time to maximize his or her in-house marketability. Whether or not this maximization can be done at an associate’s current firm depends on a variety of factors. If an associate waits too long to make a move, he or she runs the risk of being too senior for most of the in-house roles that will accept candidates with no prior in-house experience. Thus, for many associates, maximizing your “peak marketability” time could necessitate a lateral move to another law firm as a mid-level associate. But how do you know if you’re one of those attorneys?

When Industry Experience Matters. There is one strong recurring theme that we see in our in house search engagements from our clients. Candidates with industry-specific experience are much preferred to those without it. For example, we recently spoke with an in-house M&A counsel at a large biopharmaceutical company about a potential search for his team. This attorney made it explicitly clear to us that while he is open to seeing candidates straight out of law firms, the team will only consider candidates that have done deals with biotech or big pharma clients.

Even when a client does not make this industry preference explicit, the most competitive candidates will be the ones with industry-specific experience. Technology companies prefer to see technology industry experience. Colleges and universities like to see – and often insist upon – prior higher education experience or some significant nexus to higher education. You get the idea.

Many associates are agnostic as to industry, but decide to make a lateral move to round out their experience and make themselves more marketable to a wider variety of in-house employers. An associate who primarily represented PE funds decided to lateral to a hedge fund practice. Another associate who worked on mainly strategic M&A deals lateraled to a firm well known for its private equity practice.

If you would like to round out your skill set, or gain exposure to a certain industry, you might be best served by a lateral move.

When You Have Only Represented One Side of a Transaction. This could be a corollary to the first point, but it bears a separate mention. For example, if a capital markets associate only has experience representing underwriters, and that associate doesn’t want to go in-house to a financial institution that often serves as underwriter, that associate might be best served making a move to a more issuer-focused practice.

Not too long ago I was assisting a REIT client on a search for a capital markets attorney. The client made it clear that candidates with experience representing REITs in securities offerings would be the only competitive candidates. What this meant was that candidates who worked on securities offerings involving REITs – but represented the underwriters, and not the REITs – would not be considered, regardless of academic pedigree and the prominence of the law firm at which they worked.

We see a similar pattern when our in-house clients ask us to find SEC attorneys – and these searches are very common. For these searches, ’34 Act experience is key. If a capital markets attorney has only offering experience and no experience with ’34 Act filings, that person will not be a competitive candidate.

These are prime examples of otherwise very fine lawyers that need to gain additional experience in order to even gain access to the playing field for certain in house positions.

When You Need to Gain A New Skill Set To Distinguish Yourself. There’s a phrase in entrepreneurship that goes: “Niches make Riches”. As applied to a job search, if an associate specializes in a certain niche – for example, FDA regulatory, tech transactions, derivatives, healthcare – that associate gives herself a leg up in in-house marketability as she does not have to compete with the hordes of general corporate lawyers applying for a general corporate opening.

There is a small window of time where an attorney can retool his or her skill set into one that is more niche, but potentially much more marketable. Not all law firms are open to candidates whose background would require a “retool”, but it is not too uncommon for, say, a tech transactions opening at a law firm to accept resumes of strong general corporate associates.

Relocation. We have worked on several in-house openings that were open to paying full relocation for a top candidate in another city. However, these situations often arise because our client is seeking associates with a niche skill set (see above) and they have exhausted the local talent pool.

A major factor to take into consideration when evaluating your in-house marketability in another state is that the flagship law firms in smaller cities (read: markets outside NYC) often have very strong client relationships with many of that region’s top employers. When these employers look to staff up their in-house team, they often do not post a job opening or even enlist the aid of a recruiter. They tap the star associates at their go-to outside counsel.

Another factor to consider is competition. No matter how elite your credentials are, there will likely be someone physically located in your desired market who has similar credentials to you, and that person will have the leg up.

Meaningful Client Access. It is extremely important for mid-level associates to have the opportunity to build relationships with key decision-makers at the clients they work with. If an associate develops a strong enough relationship with a client such that he or she becomes the “go-to” associate for that one particular client, that associate is putting himself or herself in a great position to be “poached” into that client’s in-house team when a need arises. If an associate is not getting that type of client access by his or her 3rd or 4th year at his or her present firm, that associate should consider a lateral move to another law firm where this level of client contact is more likely to occur. I have seen this level of client contact at large firms that make a point to staff deals leanly, but it is most likely to occur at national firms with a smaller New York presence or more mid-sized firms.

Practical Considerations. Some law firms are known for creating a career path or a pipeline to in house roles at their clients. Such law firms often tout this as a major selling point to attract associates from other firms who lack this dynamic. If you are at a law firm whose clients rely primarily on outside counsel and do not really have an in-house legal team, you might consider lateraling to a law firm whose clients draw talent for their in-house legal team with outside counsel “alumni”.

Another practical consideration is law firm prestige. Many in-house employers care very much about “name brands”, particularly for the most competitive positions with the highest number of applicants.

Lastly, there is the issue of scheduling. If you are billing close to 3,000 hours at your current firm, you would have much more time (and mental clarity) to conduct an in-house search if you were billing close to 2,000 hours. That extra 1,000 hours translates into 41 days – over a month – that you’re getting back in your life.

The bottom line is that an attorney only has a certain number of years of peak marketability. Associates should use those years wisely to maximize their exit opportunities if an in-house career is their objective. Keep an eye on your colleagues that are 1-2 years senior to you: are they moving in house? If so; how many are, and what sorts of in house jobs are they getting? If you are not satisfied with that picture, you may want to consider a lateral move.

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