Stalking the In-House Counsel Job Requires Persistence and Patience

Reasonable hours. A regular paycheck. No constant pressure to market your practice. No wonder lawyers in private practice often view a corporate in-house position as the Holy Grail of legal work.

Unfortunately, the supply of such positions does not meet the demand. There are well over a million lawyers in the United States; 75 percent of them are in private practice. Many of the rest work for the government. Based on these numbers, it is reasonable to assume that considerably less than ten percent of lawyers work for corporations. The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), which is the bar association for in-house lawyers, has only 28,000 members. Obviously, in-house opportunities are scarce – especially in this unsteady economy.

That said, there are in-house positions available for lawyers who are persistent and patient. Unless your skill-set is a perfect match for the employer’s needs, the search for an in-house position can take many months – and very possibly years.

Here are the questions I am most-frequently asked when coaching lawyers:

What are the odds of getting an advertised in-house position?

From what I hear, each advertised in-house position receives well over a hundred resumes. As one of these many applicants, you must first stand out by demonstrating your exact skills and experience. If you make the initial cut, you will still be likely competing with at least five to six candidates with similarly strong credentials. The odds are daunting.
Given daunting odds, what is the best strategy?

Networking, networking, networking. Let’s go back to the advertised job. How do you get your resume selected from the initial towering stack? By knowing someone at the company who can put in a good word for you. How do you improve the 6:1 odds at the interview stage? Again, by having an advocate within the company. The more you network throughout your career, the more likely you will have this valuable contact when you need it.

Plus, conventional wisdom holds that about 75 percent of jobs are never advertised. How do you learn about these “hidden market” opportunities? Once again, the answer is networking. You must be persistent in maintaining, leveraging and expanding your network within a targeted universe of in-house contacts.

What type of experience do I need?

Although some corporations hire right out of law school, most do not. Typically, businesses want to hire law-firm lawyers with transactional experience representing companies within their industry. Most companies, even the large ones, have few litigation management positions. It can be a tough sell to convince the decision-makers that your litigation experience is sufficient for general corporate work.

Should I limit my search to the legal department?

Think broadly. Corporations frequently have positions in their regulatory or compliance departments in addition to their legal departments. Lawyers offer the skill-set for these jobs, which are predicted to expand – especially in the health care, banking and energy industries. Employment lawyers can consider the human resources department, estate planners a bank’s trust department, and litigators the area of insurance claims adjustment.

Do other skills come into play?

Many companies are looking for lawyers who supplement their legal skills with business acumen or specific industry knowledge. If you have a target industry in mind, as you should, start laying the groundwork. Join industry organizations. Enroll in classes and attend conferences. Volunteer for organizations industry leaders support. Not only will you enhance your resume, but you will meet new people and add them to your network.

What about project or contract experience?

To gain experience, consider approaching companies in your target industry with an offer to do routine project or contract legal work at a lower cost than the rates charged by their regular law firms. In other words, work as a solo for a while (from home or onsite) to gain corporate experience in your target industry. Small companies without legal staff are good candidates. Larger corporations with legal departments might have some overflow work available.

Sounds like I’m back in private practice!

You are back in private practice in the sense that you must market yourself to obtain legal work. However, you are also furthering your job search since project/contract attorneys are often the first in line when an in-house position opens up. The people you network with to obtain project/contract work are also in your network to find a full-time job. The carefully scripted message you use when networking can lead to temporary or permanent work.

Persistence and patience

Many lawyers consider corporate in-house positions to be the Holy Grail of legal work. The perfect position in the right industry is scarce, but worth the effort. Don’t expect immediate success. Define your goal. Be strategic and persistent in building and “working” your network. Be patient and guard against frustration when the search takes longer than you planned.


1 Comment

  1. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    Great post, Roy.

    Altogether too many lawyers misunderstand the position of an in-house lawyer, and the fact that there is as much risk to a career as is inherent in private practice can be overlooked by the thrill of abandoning billable hours.

    1. IN-HOUSE is not “safe.” When working for one employer, the lawyer relies on that employer for all her work and all of her paycheck. Should the corporation be merged and acquired, the two departments which are most-loaded with redundancies are Legal and Human Resources.
    2. IN HOUSE lawyers face peculiar ethical challenges. When in private practice, a lawyer can decline to represent a client whose work screams “ethical sewer.” In-house lawyers have to play the cards that they are dealt, try to steer the Ship of State into ethical and legal waters, or depart (without severance, usually.)

    When in-house, one occasionally works for a boss who says and means: “Why do we have to have “A-level” compliance? Why isn’t C-level compliance enough?” Compliance (with the law and those pesky regulations) is often like pregnancy: you are, or you aren’t.

    There are plenty of reasons to go in-house, but lawyers should never mistake “in-house” for “no-drama.”

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