Lots of lawyers – especially recruiters – will tell you that going in house is career suicide. But in this two-part article, I will explain to you why I believe that it’s not. After seven years of law firm practice, I’ve spent the last seven-plus years in-house at two Fortune 150 public companies. I enjoy helping lawyers who are looking to make changes in their personal or professional lives, and I launched this website to talk about my experiences, what worked for me to succeed in the firm, what works in-house, and what doesn’t.
Over the years, I’ve noticed some consistent patterns across lawyers – both in private practice and in-house – who seem to have found the right blend of personal and professional career balance. These ten commandments are based on those observations, as well as my own experiences in the trenches since graduating law school almost 15 years ago. I hope you find them helpful and insightful.
So, without further ado, here are Dollar Barrister’s first five commandments for going in-house. As always, I look forward to your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!
The First Commandment: Don’t Listen to the Headhunters
Headhunters like to tell you that moving in-house is career suicide. “You’ll never work in a law firm again,” they say. “Your legal skills will atrophy and no law firm will ever want to hire you.” This is baloney, and here’s why.
In both of my in-house jobs with Fortune 150 companies, there was always lots of turnover. Lawyers are strong personalities that sometimes clash and it is inevitable – whether it’s in a firm or a corporate legal department – that people won’t get along, or will find a reason to move on. And, in my experience, there is always a landing spot for an in-house lawyer in a law firm.
Law firms love the idea of selling their clients on the expertise of an in-house lawyer, particularly if that lawyer is coming out of that client’s industry. Even if they aren’t, if you’re coming from a large company with some brand power, the clients will eat it up. And so will the firm.
As far as your legal skills atrophying, I completely disagree. Actually understanding the clients’ business is far more valuable than being able to write a brief or know the minutiae of the local rules of civil procedure; the firm will have a litigation group that can handle that. What they won’t have is somebody like you with intimate knowledge of what it’s like in the trenches of the industry you represent, with great connections and experience that simply can’t be learned in a law firm.
That’s not to say working in a law firm isn’t important – I think it’s critical. While the business people you eventually end up supporting in-house may not know the difference between white shoe and sneaker, they will appreciate a legal business partner that can make a realistic assessment of risk and exposure. You just need to know when it’s time to move on – more on that later.
The Second Commandment: Make Yourself Indispensable
The reality of going in-house is that to be competitive for the best jobs you’ll need to spend time in a law firm. And spending time in a law firm is not the most pleasant experience. Take the end of 2008, for example. It was a scary time to be a law firm associate. Bear Stearns had just gone under, major law firms everywhere were laying junior lawyers off or canceling their summer associate programs, and it seemed as if the entire country was on the verge of collapse.
At the time, I had started a practice-specific blog in 2006 that had started to get some traction because of its focus on a relatively novel and emerging area of law – sustainability. When I switched firms in the middle of 2008, I continued working on it, and my new firm’s marketing department took notice. I got myself on panels and had other speaking engagements. Soon, I had built a reputation as the “go-to” lawyer for legal issues around sustainability. And when the firm started firing people left and right in early 2009, I strongly believe the reason I was left standing is because of the blogging work I had been doing and the profile it raised for me within the firm.
I told this story to a group of summer associates a couple of years later. By this time I had read Seth Godin’s book, “Linchpin.” In the book, Godin argues that in order to succeed, you need to be the person that nobody can live without. I think success in big, faceless organizations can sometimes come down to being the person who stands out – for whatever reason. In a firm, it could be developing a practice niche, or it could be deciding to take on a type of work in the trenches that others don’t have any interest in doing.
For example, in my second in-house job, I consistently noticed people who had moved up the chain handling things that nobody else wanted to. You can be that person too. Few things are so complicated that a smart person who passed a bar exam can’t figure out. You would be surprised at how few people actually sit down and read things before trying to understand it and explain it to others.
Be indispensable. Your peers will love you for it, and eventually you will get the chance to move up in any organization because of it.
The Third Commandment: Build Alliances
When I was in private law firm practice, I always noticed that many partners seemed to come in pairs. Whether leaving or joining the firm, and even where personally they seemed like an odd match, the partners with staying and surviving power in the firm had built alliances with colleagues over the years that allowed them to successfully navigate the internal politics of the firm.
Having people you can trust in a law firm is critical, as is knowing that if you need to take a vacation or are overwhelmed you can send the file over to somebody you’ve been working with for a long time. And, when things went sideways, it gave these partners negotiating power to switch firms together, as a group. I would never go back to a law firm unless I was reentering that game as part of a group of lawyers. But more on that in a future post.
For me, this was a powerful reminder that to succeed – whether in life or business – you need to build your own team. If you’re starting out, it requires staying in touch with college and law school classmates. It also leads directly into our fourth commandment, below.
The Fourth Commandment: Never Burn Bridges
Almost every job offer I’ve received since I was a summer associate came through a professional connection that I kept up after I left that job. So I can’t stress this fourth commandment enough.
Nearly three years after I started my BigLaw job, one of my former colleagues called me up because there was an opening in his company’s legal department. And that’s how I ended up in-house. When I left that position after three years, I stayed in touch with colleagues and was able to return to the company after a stint in a different organization didn’t work out.
It is remarkable to me how frequently I bump into colleagues from law firms at industry events and in social circles. There is just no reason in today’s day and age – where we are all connected on LinkedIn – to burn bridges. You just never know where your career will take you, or when you might need a lifeline. Don’t leave your old colleagues in the lurch by giving less than two weeks’ notice when you resign. Try and give three or even four if you can. Always be available to answer questions after you start your new position (within reason). And always try and help out former colleagues when they come calling. Karma has a way of finding you down the road.
The Fifth Commandment: Don’t Litigate Forever
When you’re in-house, you’re already overhead. If you’re in a transactional role, helping the business move forward by negotiating their contracts and advising on their deals, you can make the move to business advisor much more quickly, and make more money.
But litigation is a black hole. Business people hate it. And outside counsel is frequently viewed as a commodity with a race to the bottom in fees. For these reasons, it is critical to have industry experience that you can deploy from your position as in-house counsel.
So my advice to aspiring in-house lawyers is to try and transition out of litigation within a few years of private practice. At a minimum you should be focusing your litigation practice on a specific industry – real estate, construction, intellectual property – where there are realistic exit opportunities to an in-house position.
This isn’t to say that understanding litigation isn’t important. Knowing where, when, and how issues can take a company sideways is critical when advising senior management. Just don’t let yourself get trapped into being “just a litigator.” You need to demonstrate industry-specific expertise when you’re looking to go in-house.
What do you think of these first five commandments for going in-house? Let us know in the comments below, and stay tuned for Part 2!