Today’s in-house counsel are important partners of the “C-suite” in the protection of company assets and management of risk in pursuit of the company’s strategic goals. The evolution of an in-house lawyer usually begins in a law firm environment where associates are allowed the client contact and mentoring necessary to experience how the law can complement the client’s pursuit of its business objectives. This real world experience is an invaluable catalyst in the process of transitioning to “the client side.”
Some suggested qualifications of a candidate considering in-house practice include:
A minimum of two to three years of transactional experience in a law firm. Although specialists in diverse categories are demanded by corporations (litigation, IP, labor and employment, real estate, tax, securities, antitrust, etc.), it is usually the case that candidates with general corporate and commercial contracts experience, tempered by some exposure to litigation, enjoy a higher prospect for vertical mobility within a corporate law department, if that is their ambition.
A demonstrated record of team play and a strong work ethic. Lone wolves, Lone Rangers and divas have no place in the modern law department. Likewise, candidates seeking a “quality of life adjustment” (read: no timekeeping and shorter hours) may find themselves out of favor by general counsel who work just as hard as their outside counsel, having only traded one form of accountability for another. You will no longer have to develop business or compete with your peers for billable hours, but you will be a part of an inter-disciplinary client team focused on measurable results.
Well-developed interpersonal and business communication skills. Because you will often be called upon to defend your advice to non-lawyers, you cannot afford to be a shrinking violet. Your oral and written communication skills must be persuasive, precise and adaptive, as you will be dealing with all levels of management. Some negotiation experience or training will also make your transition in-house easier.
A proactive, service-oriented attitude. If you enjoy the security of the ivory tower and are uncomfortable giving less than law review quality advice, then you will be uncomfortable giving “hallway advice” sometimes demanded by your in-house clients. Your multi-tasking/legal triage skills will be in high demand. And you will not always have the mentor backstop to second-guess your advice. Your job will not be to bless every commercial decision from a legal perspective, but it will be your job to advance the company’s business objectives within commercially acceptable risk parameters. You will be expected to know your client’s culture and business, its organizational structure and its risk management philosophy.
A focus on longer term reward. Income-driven candidates might be initially disappointed by most in-house compensation packages, which are driven more by net worth building and are often at best lateral to large law firm compensation levels up to the income partner level. Trying to keep score by comparing your compensation with the 10% to 20% of your former law firm peers who will make partner is a useless apples-to-oranges comparison. Hence, be sure that the in-house job content is intellectually challenging. Increased responsibility and financial reward will follow.
For senior in-house positions, demonstrable leadership and management skills. This is difficult to accomplish below the partner level in a law firm, but the ability to manage a professional staff will be important to your vertical mobility in-house. Project team leadership, firm committee chair responsibility, and community outreach initiatives are opportunities to demonstrate your ability to motivate and “herd cats.”
A respected and experienced attorney search specialist can be a valuable asset in your search effort, especially when he or she has the confidence and ear of the client to vet the best candidates. Plan to meet with the recruiter to discuss his or her authority from the client to conduct the search. Quiz them about their knowledge of the position, the client’s corporate culture, and law department organization to ensure that your candidacy is in the right hands. A relationship of trust with such an advocate will provide you with a wealth of market information and client history important to your decision to accept or reject an offer of employment.
(Note: a version of this article first appeared in the September 2005 edition of the Texas Bar Journal.)
Steve Mims is the Executive Director of the Special Counsel Houston, Texas, office and the head of its Texas Attorney Search Director practice.
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