At most stages in our legal career, we understand what comes next, have a clear timeline for that next step, and have access to resources to help us take that step. This is true when we apply for law school, look for summer internships, study for the bar exam, and seek employment following graduation. Contrary to this typical paradigm, a lawyer does not necessarily decide to transition in-house on a predefined timeline. Rather, the desire to move to an in-house position may arise during law school or following a number of years of practice. Also, unlike other milestones in a legal career, lawyers generally do not have access to widely available resources to help with a transition to an in-house position.
The uncertainty of a transition to a corporate environment is somewhat unexpected given that many lawyers view an in-house job as their long-term career goal. Indeed, many lawyers in firms often think of going in-house as the Holy Grail: an opportunity to have a direct impact on a business while handling varied and intellectually stimulating work in a team-focused environment. Unfortunately, lawyers who want to make this transition may not know where to start.
We hope to assist with this transition by providing practical advice to young lawyers interested in a career in an in-house legal department. Based on our personal experiences in moving from private practice to Hewlett-Packard early in our legal careers, we will address how lawyers can position themselves to transition to and succeed in an in-house career.
Positioning Yourself to Transition to an In-House Career
After you decide you want to move to an in-house position, you can take several steps to achieve this goal. First and foremost, you need to be proactive and plan ahead. You also need to be mindful of how to effectively manage your brand and make sure you have the right motivation to transition to a corporate environment.
- Be Proactive and Plan Ahead
As you consider whether you want to move in-house, look at current job postings for in-house positions and identify the skills and experience valued by corporate legal departments. That way, you can proactively shape your practice to obtain those skills and experiences. Keep in mind that you need to refine not only your legal skills, but also your soft skills and emotional intelligence. Companies value lawyers who are active and effective listeners and who foster consensus in the legal department and in the businesses they support.
You also need to understand the bigger picture related to your work. Effective legal decisions are not made in a vacuum, and must facilitate the client’s business needs. As such, seek to understand the business when providing legal analysis and recommendations to your clients. This skill will become critical in a corporate environment and should be practiced while you are outside counsel.
- Manage Your Brand
Whether we like it or not, in this day of mass communication and information availability, we each have a personal brand. Your brand value is constantly evolving and can be bolstered with a clear strategy and deliberate effort.
To optimize your brand, it’s a given to continuously improve your legal skills and strive to be the best lawyer you can be. Make sure that you also work on your other skills. As mentioned above, communication skills and emotional intelligence are important traits for an in-house lawyer, so take advantage of opportunities to improve those skills. Attend training sessions your firm offers and volunteer for intra-firm presentations and writing opportunities. Additionally, seek out opportunities to engage in public speaking and publish articles. These efforts show that you are actively engaged in the practice of law, are a thought leader in your field, and likely possess the soft skills necessary to be effective as an in-house counsel. Finally, the legal community is very small, so ensure that every interaction with your clients, colleagues, and other firms is professional, high quality, and creates a lasting positive impression.
- Have the Right Motivation
Having the right motivation also is critical for successfully transitioning in-house. In-house practice can be fast-paced and challenging, and in-house positions are hard work. If your reason for moving in-house is to work fewer hours or avoid billable hour requirements, a corporate position is not the best fit for you. Instead, think carefully about your true motivation for moving in-house. You might consider whether you are motivated to be closer to the business, handle cutting-edge legal issues, gain autonomy to make important decisions, or have more direct client interaction. Ultimately, having the right motivation will improve your chances of landing an in-house position and ensure that the position meets your long-term career aspirations.
Succeeding in an In-House Counsel Position
Not surprisingly, the skills needed to land an in-house position are often valued and needed to succeed in an in-house career. At a high level, you need to think strategically, continue to develop emotional intelligence, and effectively manage your brand.
- Think Strategically
To develop into a business-savvy in-house lawyer, you first need to gain a deep understanding of your company’s strategy, including its products, goals and financials. The most successful in-house attorneys use this knowledge to anticipate the company’s legal needs and proactively recommend legal solutions. To this end, treat every client interaction as an opportunity to deepen your understanding of the business. Other in-house lawyers who support the same business also can help you in this endeavor. Additionally, be sure to take advantage of company resources to learn your business. For example, study your company’s website and intranet, participate in online sales trainings, attend business all-employee meetings, and otherwise engage the business you support to identify the best ways you can add value.
Innovation also is a key component to adding value as an in-house attorney. Innovation is critical to any company’s success, and a legal department must evolve at the same pace as the business it supports. Schedule time on your calendar to think about the problems your business and legal department face, and develop innovative, creative solutions.
- Develop Your Emotional Intelligence
Earning the trust and respect of your clients is vital to most effectively advising them. The first step to earning trust and respect is to establish an open communication channel. As lawyers, we are trained to freely and openly share our opinions, but the most successful in-house counsel prioritize listening and understanding before speaking. Ultimately, by having an open communication channel, you can anticipate the needs of your clients in the business, proactively suggest legal solutions, and cement a strong relationship built on trust and respect.
It is also critical to treat your management team and peers in the legal department as clients. The success of the business depends on the ability of the legal department and business units to effectively work together towards a common goal. As you continue to gain emotional intelligence, understand your communication style and seek awareness of how you are perceived by others. Be flexible in your relationships, adapt your communication style to fit your audience and circumstances, and strive to be a team player who puts the goals of the team first.
- Continue to Manage Your Brand
Just as a consistent and strong personal brand is important to landing an in-house position, the same is true for succeeding in an in-house career. Again, it is very important to deliver consistently high quality work product, communicate effectively, and interact with others with a high level of professionalism. Successful in-house attorneys also understand the policy and brand motivations of their general counsel and senior leaders. Gaining this understanding enables an in-house attorney to make contributions consistent with the values and priorities of the legal team and business.
Your personal brand also is affected by your willingness to take initiative and the quality of the relationships you build. Volunteer for opportunities to engage in thought leadership and represent your company. Whether it is a speaking engagement, authoring an article, policy advocacy, or pro bono work, advancing the brand of your legal team and company in a meaningful and positive way will also help your personal brand. In the same way, make the time and effort to build strong relationships with your colleagues. Reputation matters, especially because your colleagues could be your peers, manager, or outside counsel for the rest of your career.
To develop into a well-rounded, business-savvy lawyer, there is no substitute for in-house experience. As you ponder whether you want to move in-house, consider that more companies have started to hire attorneys earlier in their careers. In fact, some companies now hire attorneys with less than five years of experience and a handful hire graduates directly from law school.
For example, Hewlett-Packard has a unique program for law students that begins with a summer associate position in the 2L Summer Program and leads to a full-time position following graduation from law school. HP’s “Talent Factory” model aims to create future leaders by hiring top talent at the entry level and creating a clear career path to senior leadership. Early career positions in corporations like HP provide the advantage of significant responsibility from the start. As a result, you can immediately begin developing your client management skills, business awareness, strategic thinking, and other skills needed for in-house success.
Regardless of whether you are interested in transitioning to an in-house position early or later in your career, make sure you consider the skills, experience, and attitude you will need to transition to and succeed in a corporate environment. With a well-defined strategy and a focus on personal development, you can land your dream job and enjoy a long, rewarding in-house career.
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