Attorneys face numerous decisions as they establish their careers, including which law school to attend, which specialization to focus on, and in what geographical location they should seek employment. There’s one more major decision that they must make, and sometimes it occurs at multiple points throughout their careers: should they continue to work for a law firm or try to become in-house counsel?
While most attorneys begin their careers by working for firms, many grow tired of the pressure of billable hours, the unpredictable schedule, and the general lack of work/life balance. Even though total cash compensation might be higher in a law firm, to most lawyers working as in-house counsel for a business or corporation is more attractive. As an in-house attorney in Texas, all your efforts will be focused on supporting one client, for which you’ll play a critical role in helping your organization achieve its long-term goals and navigate complex legal issues. Whether you’re just starting out or have been in the field for years, there are certain strategies you can adopt to become a high-impact in-house attorney. In this blog post, we’ll explore several strategies that can help you obtain and excel in your role and deliver maximum value to your organization.
1 -Target companies more likely to have in-house positions
Though attorneys can transition to in-house positions at various points during their careers, those who know early on that they’d rather work for a business rather than a firm can cement an advantage by targeting their job search towards companies that would likely need in-house counsel.
This job-securing strategy involves knowing the details of the company you wish to work for, facts, as well as processes that go beyond legal matters. This means taking the time to learn about your company’s products or services, its target market, and its long-term goals. By doing so, you’ll be able to prove to hiring managers that you can provide legal advice that’s aligned with the company’s overall strategy and help your colleagues make informed business decisions.
To efficiently draft or oversee contracts and commercial agreements (two of the common in-house tasks for new hires), a new lawyer needs to understand how transactions take place. In-house counsel will usually find themselves focusing on transaction-based work rather than litigation, especially when working in the corporate world. (This may vary somewhat if the business for which you’re working is linked with intellectual property or employment law, but typically only the largest corporations will have an on-staff lawyer working with litigation.)
Part of in-house career progression involves moving from the starting role of corporate counsel up to general counsel, the most senior position. If attorneys can target specific sectors and companies while they’re still in their professional growth phase, it may prove easier to advance. Consider the case of a private company looking to go public, a strategic decision that requires counsel with the ability to work with a board, navigate capital markets, understand the legalities surrounding securities, ensure employment law compliance, and enforce intellectual property rights. A lawyer who has a long-running history with a particular company will be well positioned for just such a promotion.
2 – Choose a practice area that is needed by in-house legal departments
The first lawyer most companies hire is one to support their sales group and/or to handle the wide variety of contracts that need to be reviewed, negotiated, or drafted for any operating business. Corporate generalists who have experience handling contracts for clients are thus highly sought after for these types of roles. Another specialty that is often hired by smaller companies, especially in the technology industry, are I.P. Lawyers, both to create, protect, or monetize their I.P. As companies grow, they seek to hire employment lawyers, or if they go public, securities lawyers. If their plan for growth involves acquisitions, then they will bring an M&A attorney in-house. All companies have some litigation, but only larger corporations have enough litigation to justify bringing a full-time litigation attorney in-house. A company must be large enough and have enough litigation to make it cost effective to hire a lawyer in-house to be the internal point person for discovery, managing costs and outside counsel, strategizing with the company’s goals in mind, etc. becomes paramount. Therefore, if you’re a trial lawyer and want to transition in-house, you will want to target your search towards larger businesses, not smaller businesses that will outsource litigation to a third party whenever it is needed.
You should avoid companies and practices where in-house demand is low. Some legal specializations are simply not in-demand for in-house practice. This is because many businesses don’t have much need for attorneys who focus on practice areas such as:
- Trusts and Estates work
- Family Law
- Criminal Law
There are many types of legal specialties which will not be needed by all companies, but only ones in certain industries. For example, while most businesses don’t require in-house talent that deals with environmental law, many large corporations in the manufacturing, energy, refining, waste disposal, mining, and similar industries will require attorneys with this focus.
3 – Target prominent practice areas in your location
An aspect of trying to become corporate counsel involves targeting prominent practice areas in your location, a concomitant strategy with the previous points. In order to focus on companies with a need for in-house and full-time legal talent, you will need to understand the prime economic drivers of your specific area. In Texas, for example, Houston has many energy companies, making energy law a natural focus, although bankruptcy and restructuring are similarly important. Dallas‘ emphasis on financial services translates into specialties such as financial law and securities law. And with the recent influx of companies such as Tesla and Apple, there is a high demand with Austin companies for attorneys with experience in the technology sector and intellectual property law.
4 – Develop a holistic understanding of the law and be proactive
While it’s important to have expertise in your specific area of legal practice, it’s also important to have a broad understanding of the law. This means developing a working knowledge of other areas of law that could affect your organization, such as employment law, contract law, and intellectual property law. By doing so, you’ll be able to provide more holistic legal advice and help your organization avoid legal pitfalls.
To be a high-impact in-house attorney, you also need to be proactive in identifying and addressing legal issues. This means staying ahead of the curve and anticipating potential legal problems before they arise. You need to stay up to date on ever-changing legal developments that could impact the organizations you wish to work for. This means keeping abreast of changes to federal and state laws, as well as developments in your industry.
5 – Prioritize your professional development
As an in-house attorney, it’s important to prioritize your own professional development. This means seeking out opportunities for continuing education and professional growth, such as attending conferences, taking online courses, or pursuing advanced degrees. By investing in your own development, you’ll be better positioned to provide maximum value to your organization over the long term.
In-house counsel and corporate lawyers need to have certain skills beyond those possessed by attorneys that work primarily in firms. Practicing at a business’ behest involves much more than simply knowing the law. Ideally, in-house counsel ought to possess a range of soft skills, including, but not limited to the following:
- An understanding of the basic functions of the business
- A working knowledge of the needs of the major departments (if functioning in a general capacity) or a single specific department (if serving as a specialist)
- The ability to work with various forms of technology (see section below)
- Emotional intelligence and basic people skills
- The ability to learn quickly and practically implement that knowledge
6 – Embrace technology
As a successful in-house attorney, you need to be comfortable using various forms of technology to streamline your work and improve your productivity. This means leveraging tools like document automation software, contract management systems, and e-discovery platforms to make your work more efficient and effective. By embracing technology, you’ll be able to stay ahead of the curve and deliver maximum value to your organization.
7 – Communicate effectively
Effective communication is a key skill for any attorney, but particularly for an in-house lawyer, who must regularly interact with their internal business clients. Make sure you are able to explain legal issues clearly and succinctly to non-lawyers, and be responsive to questions and concerns from your colleagues. If you are working on a complex legal issue, consider providing regular updates to key stakeholders so they understand the status of the matter and can plan accordingly.
8- Tailor your resume for in-house positions
Once you have identified the various skills that would make you an ideal fit for an in-house role, tailor your resume so that potential employers know about them. Highlight your experience and familiarity with their field. Mention how your education and practical work intersect with the mission of the corporation. Display your specializations and experience with applicable fields.
9 – Leverage your network of clients and references
While there are many strategies to becoming an in-house attorney, one of the best involves personal recommendations from and suggestions by individuals within your network. Such people know you personally, understand your interests and capabilities, and can recommend you to gatekeepers and decision makers.
10 – Work with a legal recruiter to gain an advantage
Unfortunately, not everyone will have a contact who can direct them to a potential employer with an available in-house position. If you are not one of the fortunate few with a friend in high places, consider reaching out to a legal recruiter. Legal recruiters have extensive knowledge about the legal landscape, personal connections with multiple organizations, and extensive experience that can help you land the ideal job.
With hundreds of successful in-house legal placements and numerous long-term relationships with law firms and in-house legal departments, Momentum Search Partners has what you need to find the perfect in-house position. Contact us today.