Making the Move: From law firm associate to in-house counsel

August 13, 2017

For many lawyers, moving in-house is the natural next step for their career after earning their legal stripes at a law firm. Drawing from my experience as a global legal recruiter with over seven years’ experience moving lawyers into and between in-house roles, I’ve put together the following advice for law firm associates considering their first in-house move.

Go on secondment

The key disadvantage that law firm associates face when they are looking to move in-house is their lack of prior in-house experience. Many associates are not offered the opportunity to go on secondment to a client but if you are, you should always accept. It gives you an unparalleled opportunity to see if in-house counsel life is for you, and builds the soft skills which in-house hiring managers look for.

Start looking early

Some lawyers get lucky and find the right role soon after embarking on their search, but it is much more common for the search to take longer, sometimes up to one year. Finding a good quality recruitment agency early on in your search is paramount as you will have a trusted partner keeping you informed of opportunities on the market. There are usually only a handful of roles that will pique your interest and you don’t want to miss them just because you’re not sure it’s the perfect time.

Develop a commercial mindset

Once you’re in the role, you’ll find that in-house counsel often work closely with a variety of business departments, and demands on your time can be just as intense as in a law firm. The key differential is that in-house life rewards the efficient: if you manage your time well, you’ll have much greater control over the hours you work than in a law firm, where work is handed down from partners. Your only client is the business and they do not want to wade through a carefully annotated memo. They want you to outline the solution and to do so with a minimum of legalese. Keep communications short, punchy and to the point.

Be prepared to move out of your comfort zone

You will have to quickly acclimatize to being outside the comfort zone of your specialty practice area. If you’re part of a commercial in-house team supporting the entire business, your front-office colleagues won’t take into account that you spent the last four years advising purely on labor and employment matters (if that was your area) and will come to you with broader questions, expecting answers. That can initially be scary but if you adopt the generalist mindset early on it will be a blessing in disguise. Be the troubleshooter and you’ll increasingly be the person they turn to fix the problem, which will enhance your skills and give you the right kind of exposure within the business.

Be resourceful

Once you go in-house, you’re suddenly an expense to the business rather than a fee-earner. The secretaries and paralegals which you took for granted in the law firm are no longer there. You may not have knowledge or precedent banks to draw from, which means you have to be a lot more resourceful. An in-house career rewards those who take control of their own career development and seek out help from both their peers and their external legal network. A universal tip for new in-house lawyers is to not be afraid to be proactive in building a network of other in-house lawyers.

Learn the bigger picture

In a law firm you inhabit a world where everybody has a similar background to you. The world of the corporation is much more diverse, and a junior in-house lawyer might discover they need to work on their interpersonal skills. Rather than trying to impress everyone with the finer points of a tricky clause in a contract, you should take time to walk around, visit all areas of the company, and get fully on board with the values, culture, ways of doing business, and – crucially – which are the right people to talk to. To move up in the hierarchy, you must have a sound understanding of what is going on outside the legal silo.

Develop a thorough knowledge of the sector you are entering, outside of the legal sphere. It’s key to do this early on, as time may be short in future. It can be a steep learning curve, but the pay-off is clear further down the line when an appreciation of the real-world implications may be the difference between the success or failure of legal advice.