The Ideal In-House Candidate

The Ideal In-House Candidate

The ideal candidate for an in-house legal department is somewhat different than for a law firm. Although good legal skills are mandatory, a successful in-house lawyer possesses additional business and soft skills not necessarily required for advancement in private practice.



In-house legal departments usually seek candidates who possess several years of solid law firm training and experience, thus most lateral hires are at least mid-to-senior associate level. Except in the very largest corporate legal departments, new law school graduates rarely are hired directly in-house because they lack exposure to a sufficient variety of practice areas and legal tasks. It is difficult to provide internally the training associates get from the law firm experience. A few major U.S. corporations, however, are experimenting with a new career track for entry-level lawyers. In 2009, Hewlett-Packard and Pfizer began recruiting candidates from top law schools for pay significantly lower than the median salary for first-year associates in the region. Those lawyers must complete a two-year graduate lawyer program during which they rotate through various legal units and cross-train with the company’s outside law firms.


Hard Skills

While law firm lawyers usually specialize in a particular area of practice, many in-house counsel are generalists, juggling anything law-related that affects the company. They must handle a varied caseload where no two days are the same. This requires nimble multi-tasking and legal triage skills to quickly prioritize tasks and delegate, if necessary.

Transactional expertise is most in demand. The majority of in-house legal department positions call for background in some combination of corporate, securities, mergers & acquisitions and— depending upon the company’s business—real estate or intellectual property law. While litigation management experience is valuable, most corporations send their active litigation to outside law firms. Generally speaking, only the largest law departments handle their litigation in-house. Consequently, law department positions for litigators are few and far between, and most of those involve supervising outside counsel who actually handle the litigation.

Academic credentials such as law school prestige and the candidate’s class rank usually matter less to in-house departments than to law firms; greater weight is accorded to a candidate’s experience and interpersonal skills. This depends, however, on the backgrounds of the corporation’s executives and general counsel. Those with fancy pedigrees are more likely to demand candidates with similar backgrounds.

Companies overwhelmingly favor lawyers who understand their business. The ideal candidate for an in-house position has experience either working within or representing clients in the same or similar industry as the prospective employer. Especially attractive is one with secondment experience, where a law firm lawyer works “on loan” at a corporation’s location for a set period of a few months to a year or more. At minimum, the candidate must know how the business works and the corporation’s position in the marketplace.


Soft Skills

The ideal in-house candidate combines strong technical skills with creativity and experience to quickly and efficiently provide creative solutions to difficult, complex legal and business problems, within acceptable levels of risk so the company can achieve its goals and stay out of trouble. A strong in-house candidate also must be able to navigate any negative presumptions harbored by businesspeople against lawyers. A law firm practitioner is a revenue generator, or profit center, since the firm’s core business is law. Conversely, the corporate legal department is a cost center, or part of the overhead, since in-house lawyers are not directly engaged in producing the product or service the company sells in the marketplace. Moreover, many businesspeople resent their in-house lawyers because they see them as roadblocks, offering only reasons why a desired strategy will not work.

A good in-house candidate is one who engenders respect yet works collaboratively. Excellent verbal and written communication skills are mandatory. Corporate counsel interface with non-lawyer businesspeople at all levels of the organization, from board members and executives to line workers and everyone in between, including salespeople, scientists, engineers, and administrative staff. They must translate their advice from legal jargon and clearly recommend what the company should do. In-house lawyers need confidence and strong negotiating skills, as well, not just make deals with outside parties but also to advocate for their recommendations within the company. Nevertheless, their advice may be ignored some of the time, and they must be prepared to diplomatically handle the results of the company’s actions.

Corporate counsel must be succinct and give business people “news they can use”. In-house lawyers are not paid for time, but for work product. There is no time for analysis paralysis. Unlike in a law firm where lawyers can research all aspects of a legal problem and polish their work product, in a business environment, lawyers must be decisive and willing to make a judgment call, even if they are not 100 percent certain. In-house lawyers must develop the ability to accurately determine when "good" is "good enough" to get the job done, and focus on critical tasks that add value to the business.

The ideal in-house candidate also is a people person and a team player with a proactive, service-oriented attitude. Corporations usually do not have lawyers, even junior ones, who work in back rooms, isolated from the businesspeople. In-house lawyers share office space and meet with their clients on a daily basis. Since in-house lawyers give advice based on a thorough understanding of how the business works, they must get out and see how people do their jobs and what they need from their lawyers to achieve better results. They also must identify potential problems and solve them before they escalate to crises needing the attention of outside counsel.


Senior Positions

A candidate for a senior in-house position must effectively manage diverse personalities and relationships, both internally and externally. Those candidates need to show that they can delegate responsibility, provide feedback, recruit, mentor, and develop talent for current and future roles­ and, possibly, fire people. They also may need experience in making and managing the internal and external legal budget. A highly valued skill is the ability to minimize the use of outside counsel by accomplishing more work in-house with fewer people and resources.


Valerie Fontaine
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