In the past, once a lawyer went in-house, there was virtually no going back to the law firm environment. That’s no longer the case. Law firm employers realize that in-house attorneys often have credentials, sophistication, practice experience, and demanding work schedules similar to those the firms require. Corporate counsels often bring valuable connections, business insight, and experience, as well.
Although a stint in-house doesn’t make law firm reentry impossible, it does make it more difficult. The following strategies can ease the transition:
- Work your network of contacts including former law firm colleagues and mentors. Some may have moved to other firms, which increases your reach. If you burned bridges or left your former firm in the lurch when rushing out the door to join a corporate law department, you shouldn’t expect a welcome mat there; you’ll need to look for new opportunities.
- Present your in-house skills as being transferable, making you a value-added hire. For example, you can describe to potential employers how you developed the ability to handle multiple tasks, work faster, and take risks. Furthermore, you can argue that you now possess business judgment, organizational understanding, and industry knowledge in addition to your legal abilities. In interviews, offer tangible proof of these new skills and discuss how they can benefit the law firm and its clients. Tout your added perspective, showing how your understanding of what it’s like to be the consumer of legal services allows you to more effectively service the firm’s clients’ real needs.
- You’ll want to illustrate how you are a better-rounded lawyer due to the requirements of meeting the varied legal requirements of a business enterprise. In your cover letter, resume, and interviews, showcase newly acquired legal abilities, such as the hands-on running of deals, negotiating and documenting agreements, experience with high-tech or intellectual property practice, employment matters, and the like. There’s a concern that corporate lawyers, particularly those in small or start-up companies, receive little or no training during their tenure in-house, especially if you were relatively junior when you left the law firm environment. Discuss your specific duties and accomplishments as house counsel and offer as references the names of outside or opposing counsel who can vouch for the quality and sophistication of your legal talent.
- Prospective law firm employers expect more senior candidates to grow a client base in relatively short order, so you will need to craft an effective business-development plan. Talk about your previous rainmaking success in the law firm environment if you had a client base before you moved in-house.Explore whether you can expect to bring work from your current and past in-house gigs, and how much. Describe and maximize your increased network of business contacts and potential clients gained during your sojourn in-house. It’s important to keep abreast of former business colleagues as they make career moves to other companies where they might be able to send out legal work, thereby increasing your marketing potential.
- Emphasize your commitment to traditional law firm practice.You can explain in cover letters and interviews that you’ve seen both sides and know your preference is the law firm life. You 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’s also important to clarify that you didn’t leave the law firm for “lifestyle reasons.” Emphasize that you logged long hours in the corporate environment and aren’t afraid of hard work and law firm billable hours requirements.
- If approaching your previous law firm, sell your “fit”. You’re 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. You can hit the ground running and save the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruiting and training costs.
- Position yourself to fit the prospective employer’s current needs. You’ll need to demonstrate flexibility when negotiating the terms of your return such as practice area, department, title, and compensation. Furthermore, 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 you pursued your in-house dreams.
With some thought to how your particular background can benefit the target law firm, you can go home again.