The stereotypical career trajectory for an in-house lawyer begins at a midsize to large law firm. As corporate legal departments have not traditionally been equipped to tackle the intensive training and development that new attorneys require, many are happy to leave associate training to the firms. The corporations underwrite the training, so to speak, by allowing firms to staff their matter with associates working under a supervising partner.
After a few years of firm experience, associates learn of openings through their close interaction with corporate clients and laterally transfer from firms to corporate in-house, their intimate knowledge of the corporation’s legal and business issues allowing for a smooth transition. However, corporations, with their eye on the bottom line more than ever in a weak economy, have pushed back against paying high billing rates for junior-level law firm associates, and are unwilling to pay the firms to train the new lawyers. Partners, eager to shore up their billable hours, have less work to pass along to the associates. While this sounds like a grim description of a shrinking legal market, the result can be greater opportunities for law school graduates and law students in corporate legal departments without first obtaining experience at a firm. The trick is finding and, in some instances, creating these opportunities. The following are some tips for law students and recent graduates for breaking into the corporate legal world.
Know the options
Simply stated, an in-house lawyer is an employee who works as an attorney for a corporation. However, within a corporation, there may be several different types of attorney positions. Corporate legal departments are generally headed by the general counsel (GC), who serves as the chief legal officer of the company. The GC typically advises the board of directors and the corporation’s officers in all legal proceedings, reports directly to the chief executive officer, and is considered an essential component of the executive management team. Obviously, these positions are staffed with senior attorneys with years of experience. Below the GC, senior attorneys are charged with supervising lower-level staff attorneys, advising the company in one particular field of law, or supporting the GC in coordination with outside counsel on litigation matters. Staff attorneys, similar to junior associates at law firms, may typically be assigned research-oriented tasks or are asked to provide support for the senior staff attorneys. Some law departments have removed this hierarchy by eliminating these titles and referring to all attorneys as corporate counsel.
Depending on the industry, attorneys may be found throughout the company and not just concentrated in a legal department. For example, in the insurance industry, corporate counsel may be found in litigation roles, underwriting positions, and claims functions. The important point for the job seeker is to understand the different ways a particular company utilizes attorneys so that you can target the appropriate hiring manager.
Find an insider
As with any job hunt, one of the greatest resources available to new attorneys is their personal contacts.
Network. College and law school alumni, family, friends, and professional contacts can all serve as networking resources to help you discover and possibly land that desired in-house position. Start with your Career Services Office. Ask them to identify alumni who are working in corporate in-house positions. Reach out to these alumni and talk to them about their work. Whenever possible, arrange an in-person meeting while they are on campus or you are in their vicinity. Find out how their company utilizes attorneys and what the hiring process involves. Whenever possible get specific contact information for hiring managers so you can submit materials directly to them.
Another strategy is to attend professional meetings or join committees where in-house counsel are present. Check your local bar association for committees that focus on in-house attorneys. Subscribe to publications such as Inside Insights (free newsletter) that are designed for in-house lawyers. Join professional organizations such as the Association of Corporate Counsel to gain insider information on resources, education, and careers.
Some law schools have developed classes aimed at preparing law students for in-house counsel positions. These classes feature guest lectures by general counsels of nonprofits and corporations and include contract drafting and presentations before a “board of directors.” Even if your school’s curriculum doesn’t include such courses, seek out classes that will help you develop necessary skills in corporate practice—contract negotiations, human resource issues, mergers, and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, for example. Discuss your career interests with your professors and understand how your coursework can be highlighted to potential employers.
Consider a dual degree. Many schools offer joint JD/MBA, JD/MHA (Master of Hospital Administration), or JD/MLHR (Master of Labor and Human Resources) programs. While an advanced degree will not guarantee employment, it may open more doors as you point to your additional training and knowledge as reasons why you stand out from the competition.
When you are forging an untraditional path, you must be willing to advocate for yourself and take chances. Network and find out how your targeted company utilizes lawyers. Find an insider who will talk to you about the employer and give you information about the hiring manager. Reach out to that person and make your case for why they should hire you for the summer. If the position is unpaid, talk to your law school administration about working for credit hours.
Create a student interest group focused on in-house careers. Invite in-house practitioners to speak to your group, providing an occasion for students to obtain career advice, learn more about the profession, and discover employment or internship opportunities. n