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Considering a move from a law firm to an in-house counsel role? It’s more complicated than simply trading the pressure of billable hours for the seemingly endless number of legal matters an in-house department handles. To shed some light on this, we asked two practitioners who made the transition about their experiences, and share their most important advice.
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Outside counsel can often get by with only a tactical understanding of how their clients operate, focusing instead on the fundamental legal matters. On the other hand, in-house attorneys are most effective when they have a genuine insider’s understanding of the business. “Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and go down to the manufacturing floor, so to speak, to truly appreciate how things get done, how the company makes money, and how it operates,” says Andrew L. Strong, partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
He recommends asking business leaders two critical questions to get a better feel for the company:
- What worries you late at night?
- What excites you when you get up and come to work in the morning?
“The excitement of taking on and solving problems, and helping them sleep better at night, is what you enjoy about the in-house job,” he says.
Be an asset.
Jim Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation and past president of the District of Columbia Bar Association, practiced at a law firm for 30 years before leaving for in-house public service. He points out that being part of the organization doesn’t mean that you stop marketing yourself as a trusted asset and advisor. “You always need to remember that your in-house clients do have choices,” he says. “Your job as in-house counsel is to develop strong relationships with your clients, so that they view you as a thought partner and a problem-solver, and so they will always find value in your advice.”
Think beyond the “no.”
In-house counsel has a reputation for being a storehouse of denials, objections and roadblocks. Although raising legitimate legal concerns is part of the responsibility, it’s possible to be both a good steward from a legal perspective, while also finding ways to work constructively with the rest of the business. “[At Texas A&M], we didn’t want to be the ones who came up with the reasons why a deal couldn’t be done. We just wanted to make sure they did it in a legally compliant manner that avoided as much risk as possible,” Strong says. “The point was not to stand in the way, but to facilitate progress, to help navigate.”
Being in-house doesn’t mean the end of intriguing legal challenges. But you may have to be ready to raise your hand in order to get them. “In-house counsel have access to the full range of legal issues their clients generate,” Sandman says. “That often gives them first pick of the most interesting and challenging work.”
When Strong went in-house, the most valuable piece of advice he received was to keep his calendar as flexible as possible. “You can’t anticipate half of what you’ll do the next day; there will always be stuff that comes in the door unexpectedly,” he says. “Don’t get rattled when your day turns upside down because some executive pulls you away on something that just came in that needs to be dealt with immediately.”
Be ready to engage beyond the law.
General counsels are frequently considered part of the senior management team, and by extension their in-house teams are expected to engage in issues that impact the entire business. “That gave me a much broader and more interesting role than outside counsel usually have,” Sandman says.
Consider learning opportunities.
Strong left Pillsbury in 2009 to serve as general counsel at Texas A&M, and returned to his old firm in 2014. During his time away, he developed a wealth of additional experience in the biotech industry. “I always wanted to know what it would be like to step out and do something different, but back at Pillsbury, I’m still providing legal services to early and mid-stage biotech companies in Texas,” he says.
As you can see, there are myriad differences between working in an in-house counsel role, as opposed to working at a law firm. Each of these differences—or, as some see them, opportunities—along with culture, salary offerings and workplace flexibility, should be carefully considered if you are thinking about moving away from a firm.
Whether you are a recent law school graduate, looking to transition your legal career, or ready for a new opportunity in a law firm or in-house, we are here to help you reach your potential. Contact a Special Counsel recruiter to get started.
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