The In-house Interview

The In-house Interview

Because the ideal in-house candidate differs from the ideal law firm candidate, the interview differs, as well.  Candidates must take these differences into consideration to make a successful leap in-house from the law firm environment.

 

Preparation

Preparation is essential for any job interview. Before interviewing for an in-house legal position, candidates should study the company’s website and, for publicly-traded corporations, the relevant sections of the company’s securities filings which can be found online. Candidates can check sites such as www.vault.com  and www.glassdoor.com for reviews, and conduct broader research on the company and its industry through an internet search. Many companies also use social media to discuss new products, deals, and business initiatives.

 

Process

In-house interviews are conducted by personnel at various levels of the corporate hierarchy and from different departments, not just lawyers. The initial interview may be an in-person or phone screening with a member of the human resources department. Next, lawyers from the legal department vet the candidate for skills and fit. The General Counsel may or may not interview the candidate, depending upon the size and structure of the department and the company itself. Interviews often include various executives or members of other business departments with which the lawyer will interface if hired.

The lawyer-conducted interviews cover legal skills, much like for any law firm job. People from the business side, however, are not as impressed with academic records and honors; they want to know more about what the lawyer can do for the business. Smart candidates show their interviewers that they have thought about the company’s business goals and legal problems, and how they would approach a solution. Executives want to hear the candidate thinking like an in-house lawyer, especially about how to keep legal costs down and what work should be sent to outside counsel or an LPO (legal process outsourcing) company, or done in-house. In the business world, solving legal problems quickly and cheaply is paramount.

Candidates must be prepared to discuss how each item on their résumé relates to the company’s legal needs. If the job description highlights specific competencies, they should note a few examples of work they have done which utilized those skills or involved those practice areas. A smart candidate briefly relates relevant stories which demonstrate the intangible attributes, or “soft skills” the corporation seeks. For more senior in-house positions, candidates need to show management acumen. If lacking direct supervisory experience, they can cite related experience such as project or team leadership, firm committee chair responsibility, and leadership roles in professional and community organizations.

Candidates must demonstrate understanding that the priorities and mindset necessary for an in-house position are different than what is required for success at a law firm. Many corporate legal departments run more leanly than private law firms and lack some of the services those lawyers often take for granted. There probably will not be a cadre of junior associates, paralegals, and 24-hour support staff at the lawyers’ beck and call. Consequently, candidates must express their willingness to roll up their sleeves and do whatever work is necessary to get the job done. While it is appropriate for candidates to ask who the company uses as outside counsel, they should not inquire how much work is farmed out. Candidates must not give the impression that they seek a cushy job where they primarily supervise outside lawyers. All in-house hopefuls should assume that they will be doing the heavy lifting and should discuss their desire and ability to do so.

 

Motivation

The trickiest question in-house hopefuls encounter is about their motivation for such a move. They never should intimate that they seek a "lifestyle change." While it's true that jettisoning billable hours and rainmaking pressures are attractive features of the transition, corporate counsel understandably are wary of anyone who signals a desire for an easier job.

Better answers communicate a desire to: work for one client, rather than many; handle a more varied workload; be involved in transactions from initial conception through completion; and develop a thorough understanding of that client's business and create strategies and solutions that make long-term sense for the enterprise as a whole, not just for a particular case. Candidates who did their homework can mention that they researched litigation or deals involving this company and they present legal issues the candidates find stimulating and a good fit for their substantive experience. A strong conclusion is a statement that the candidate wants to be part of a team or organization with the ultimate purpose of (fill in product or service the company provides), rather than simply the provision of legal services. Note, however, that demonstrating artificial passion about the business might get a candidate hired, but real interest in their mission will make for a happier lawyer in the long term.

 

Questions to Ask

If done correctly, an interview provides an opportunity for both the prospective employer and the candidate to learn more about each other. Therefore, questions asked by the candidate are just as important as those asked by the interviewer. Besides eliciting information about the position and the firm, candidates need to determine whether this is the right career move—both the transition in-house and the particular company. Good questions demonstrate the candidates’ insight, interest, and enthusiasm, and can increase their chances of getting an offer.

Below are some questions an in-house candidate may want to ask:

  • What is the structure of the legal department?
  • To whom does this position report?
  • Does the GC report to the CFO or CEO?
  • Is the GC considered part of the senior management team?
  • Do other department heads report to the GC?
  • Which other executives and departments does this position interface with on a regular basis?
  • What is the company’s management style?
  • How are lawyers regarded in the organization?
  • Have they had a lawyer working in-house previously, or would this hire be the first?
  • Which outside counsel does the company use currently?
  • Is the company contemplating any major structural or business changes in the foreseeable future?
  • What is the company’s competition?
  • What challenges does the company face?
  • What changes are anticipated in the industry?
  • What pending regulation might affect operations?
  • What risks will the company face due to industry or regulatory changes?

Most in-house counsel started their legal careers with a law firm, thus made the leap from that environment to the corporate legal department. With the proper preparation, you can, too.

Valerie Fontaine

Valerie A. Fontaine earned her JD from UC Hastings College of Law and her BA, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, from UCLA. She was on the Editorial Board of COMM/ENT, a Journal of Communications and Entertainment Law. Valerie practiced law with a prominent Los Angeles law firm and entered the legal search profession in 1981. Valerie is a member the Board of Directors of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants (NALSC) and serves on its Ethics Committee.
Valerie Fontaine

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