We’re back with the second article in a two-part series presenting our ten commandments for getting out of the law firm grind and into an in-house role that will, in the long run, make you a happier and wealthier lawyer – after all, that’s our mission here at Dollar Barrister.
As I said in part 1, 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.
These ten commandments stem from my observations over 15+ years of experience in the trenches, having successfully navigated through a mid-level AmLaw 100 law firm associate position to multiple in-house corporate counsel roles with Fortune 150 companies.
They aren’t in any particular order, by the way; your results can and will vary. But before we dig in, and as a refresher, here are the first five:
- The First Commandment: Don’t Listen to the Headhunters
- The Second Commandment: Make Yourself Indispensable
- The Third Commandment: Build Alliances
- The Fourth Commandment: Never Burn Bridges
- The Fifth Commandment: Don’t Litigate Forever
The Sixth Commandment: Work Before Law School
It might be too late if you’re already a mid-level associate, but if you’re just considering law school or finishing up your undergraduate degree, I strongly urge you to consider working in the real world for a bit and waiting a few years before diving into Torts or Pierson v. Post.
Having industry experience is invaluable, especially when it comes time to interview at OCI (on-campus interviewing) during the fall of your 2L year. An interesting job will help your CV stand out from the hordes of law students who went straight from college to law school.
This commandment ties in with the next one. If you’re looking to go in-house, having experience in your future employer’s industry will give you an advantage. And getting non-legal experience, before you go to law school, is a great way of getting your foot in the door.
The Seventh Commandment: Pick an Industry – Not a Practice Area
There’s a great personal finance book I read recently that includes pieces of career advice from an early graduating class at Harvard Business School. One of the tips was to “pick an industry – not a job.” The logic is that, if you work in the right industry, you’ll eventually find a role within it that you enjoy and excel at.
I think this logic extends equally to law practice. If you worked in an industry that you enjoyed or are passionate about before law school (like I did), it can be an easier to find a transition path from private law firm practice to in-house.
Even if you didn’t, you can still get great experience within a specific industry when you’re in a law firm – either as a litigator or a corporate associate. And, once you make the transition in-house, it becomes easier to make the transition from lawyer into the business (if that’s what you want.)
The Eighth Commandment: The Power of Patience
I’ve said it before here at Dollar Barrister but it’s worth repeating again: the longer you wait to go in-house, the better off you’ll be. Obviously you shouldn’t wait forever, but the difference in opportunities that you’ll have as a third-year associate versus if you stick it out until you’re a more senior associate will be stark.
It’s difficult to move up the ranks in-house. Junior in-house lawyers will not get the same opportunities to work with senior management as a lawyer who supports an entire operating segment or area of focus (like litigation, ethics, M&A, etc.). And those latter positions go to more seasoned attorneys – even law firm partners who are looking for a change in the latter stages of their careers.
While you’re an associate, focus on becoming an expert in a specific area of expertise. The right in-house position will present itself in due course. So don’t pull the trigger too soon, or you may be looking at early exit options from your in-house counsel position – which could include not passing go, and heading straight back into a law firm (more on this unsavory scenario in a future article here at Dollar Barrister).
The Ninth Commandment: Don’t Discount the Joy of Not Billing Hours
Before I went in-house, I badly underestimated how freeing it would be not to bill hours anymore. I remember lying in bed at night – especially on Sundays – thinking about how I was going to fill up my timecard with at least 40 billable hours (and frequently much more, especially if we were coming up on the end of the month.) It’s simply not a pleasant way to live, as you know if you’re currently a law firm associate.
That’s not to say I don’t work hard in-house – sometimes I work way harder than I ever did in the firm. But the difference is when things are slow (and sometimes they are – just the nature of our business) I don’t freak out about squeezing billable blood from a stone. I’m able to take a deep breath, clean out my Outlook inbox, reflect on what I’ve been working on recently, and focus on longer term projects. In my opinion it’s a much more civil way to work.
If you’re on the fence about giving an in-house role a try, make sure you keep this in mind.
The Tenth Commandment: Talk is Cheap; Always Say Yes
If you’re an associate in a large law firm, you know you are always getting calls from headhunters looking to move you into a new firm. As you start approaching the “sweet spot” for moving in-house (roughly the fifth through ninth year of law firm practice) those calls may start pitching in-house gigs. My philosophy has always been to say “yes, I’m interested” whenever a headhunter reaches out.
For me, this has led to nothing but good things in my personal and professional life. Yes, it is emotionally exhausting to interview or to have a potential relocation hanging over your head. But you will be surprised at how much you can learn – about the interviewing process, about what you’re worth on the market (both salary and title), and about yourself – by saying yes, you’re interested when that first phone call comes through.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!