Navigating In-house Career Roadblocks

Navigating In-house Career Roadblocks

Despite the many perks of working in-house, there is one big negative: very little room at the top. Corporate law departments tend to be relatively flat organizationally and advancement depends on a number of factors mostly out of an ambitious lawyer’s control, such as the size and structure of the department, the age of its lawyers, the health of the company, trends in the industry, or a combination of the above. If the top lawyers are competent, healthy, happy, and not close to retirement age, lower ranking counsel have nowhere to go.


They have several options:


Change departments. Roadblocked in-house counsel can leverage their business skills and move from the legal function to another department such as compliance, human resources, sales, marketing, or general management. These positions tend to present themselves on an opportunistic basis. To find these opportunities, corporate lawyers can network within the company, learn as many aspects of the business as possible, and communicate their desires. Caveat: Advancement may be just as limited on the business side as in the law department.


Change companies. Stalled lawyers can use their talents to springboard to a higher position in another company’s legal department, either in the same industry or another sector where their skills transfer. Some lawyers fear that specializing in one industry may pigeonhole them, resulting in fewer career options. Or, a lawyer might choose an industry poised for growth, such as healthcare, eldercare, high technology, or energy as a strategy to increase potential future opportunities.


Change career goals. Climbing the corporate ladder is not the only route to a rich and rewarding career. Finding new challenges within a current position or via extracurricular activities allows for career growth without making a job move. Examples inside the company include participation on corporate committees, mentoring junior colleagues, or becoming the company's go-to authority on an arcane but necessary subject. Outside the company, lawyers might enjoy making speeches and writing articles, mentoring through an outside organization, teaching at a local law school, college, or paralegal program, or achieving recognition through bar association or community leadership. Either through a company program or professional organization, lawyers can derive great career satisfaction by furthering a legal cause on a pro bono basis.


Or, Change career tracks. Return to the law firm environment.


In the past, once a lawyer left the law firm environment to go in-house, there was virtually no return. That no longer is the rule. Law firm employers realize that in-house counsels often have credentials, sophistication, practice experience, and demanding work schedules similar to those the firms require. Corporate lawyers can bring valuable connections, business insight, and experience, as well.


Although a stint in-house does not make law firm reentry impossible, it does make it more difficult. The following strategies can ease the transition:


  • Lawyers wishing to return to a law firm must work their network of contacts including former law firm colleagues and mentors. Some contacts may have moved to other firms, which extends the network’s reach. Lawyers who burned bridges or left their former firms in the lurch when rushing out the door to join a corporate law department, should not expect a welcome mat there; rather, they will need to seek new opportunities.


  • Candidates should present their in-house skills as being transferable, making them value-added hires. For example, they can describe to potential employers how they developed the ability to handle multiple tasks, work faster and more efficiently, and take risks. Furthermore, they can argue that they now possess business judgment, organizational understanding, and industry knowledge in addition to their ­legal abilities. In interviews, job-seekers must offer tangible proof of these new skills and discuss how they can benefit the law firm and its clients.


Some areas of law are more effectively learned in-house and then can be put to valuable use for law firm clients. For example, healthcare regulatory expertise honed while serving as in-house counsel to a hospital system later can benefit many similar clients at a law firm. Candidates should tout their added perspective, showing how their understanding of what it is like to be the consumer of legal services enables them to more effectively service the firm’s clients’ real needs.


  • Throughout the job search process, candidates can illustrate how they are better-rounded lawyers due to the requirements of meeting the varied legal requirements of a business enterprise. In the cover letter, resume, and interviews, candidates should showcase newly acquired legal abilities, such as the hands-on running of deals, negotiating and documenting agreements, broader practice exposure (i.e., litigation management, intellectual property, employment, etc.), and relevant industry experience.


There’s a concern that in-house lawyers, ­particularly those in small or start-up companies, receive little or no training during their tenure in-house, especially if they were relatively junior when they left the law firm environment. Therefore, such candidates should discuss their specific duties and accomplishments as house counsel. They also can mention who trained them (especially if any of their mentors were former big law firm lawyers) and offer as references the names of outside or opposing counsel who can vouch for the quality and sophistication of their legal talent.


  • Prospective law firm employers expect partner-level candidates to quickly produce a client base, so more senior candidates will need to craft an effective business-development plan. The plan must include any previous rainmaking success in the law firm environment prior to making the move in-house. It also should explore whether the candidate expects to bring work from the current and past in-house engagements, and how much. The plan should describe the candidate’s increased network of business contacts and ­potential clients gained during the sojourn in-house. It is important for every lawyer to keep abreast of former business associates—lawyers and non-lawyers—who make career moves to other companies where they might in a position to influence the selection of outside counsel, thereby increasing the lawyer’s marketing potential should they need to develop business in the future.


  • Exiting in-house counsel seeking law firm jobs must emphasize their commitment to traditional law firm practice. They can explain in cover letters and interviews that they have seen both sides and know that their preference is the law firm life. Those candidates might stress a more mature attitude and appreciation for the traditional practice of law (e.g., relative security, daily interaction with other lawyers, interesting and sophisticated work for a ­variety of clients, training, and support).


  • It also is important to clarify that such candidates did not leave the law firm environment for “lifestyle reasons.” They must emphasize that they logged long hours in the corporate environment and are not afraid of hard work and law firm billable hours requirements.


  • If approaching their previous law firms, returning lawyers need to sell their “fit”. They are a proven commodity, know the players and politics of the firm, thrive in its culture, and need little or no lead time in terms of integration. They can hit the ground running and save the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruiting and training costs.


  • Candidates who wish to return to a law firm after an in-house stint must position themselves to fit the prospective employer’s current needs. They need to demonstrate flexibility when negotiating with regard to practice area, department, title, and compensation. Furthermore, they must be sensitive to the politics of the situation. The law firm may not want to offend or demoralize those who kept their noses to the grindstone while the candidates pursued their in-house dreams.


In this increasingly mobile legal marketplace, many lawyers will move from law firms to in-house positions and, perhaps, back again. The wise lawyer carefully evaluates each move to make sure they add up to a successful long-term career.



Valerie Fontaine
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