Instead of credential-building, let’s talk about skill-building. The legal industry is shifting from firm power to general counsel power, and law students and lawyers alike need to position themselves ahead of the curve. In this article we will propose ways that lawyers can transition from firm to in-house roles, or consider in-house roles from the start of their careers.
- Background on in-house vs. firm work
- Carving your own path towards in-house work
- The industry is shifting from firm power to general counsel power
- Getting connected to opportunities
Background: In-House vs. Law Firms
How is the job of an in-house lawyer different from being a firm lawyer? And is the outcome of a lawyer self-learning better than one coming from a firm into an in-house team? When working in-house, it’s not about billable hours, but rather working efficiently. Merely highlighting risk is less of an emphasis, and instead the role is focused on offering solutions to business partners. Developing solutions for the business and learning to navigate different cross-functional priorities becomes more important than only pointing out where the risks exist.
There is some “un-training” that happens as one transitions from a law firm to an in-house position. In a firm, there may be implicit biases that come from mentalities of looking to bill hours, focusing on mining for risks without necessarily offering business solutions, and shifting decision-making onto the client. Even writing style can be an adjustment as you transition from writing “Blue Book emails” to outlining concise, actionable steps. These are behaviors to “un-learn” and “re-tool” when going in-house.
On the other hand, when you start your career in an in-house position without exposure to a firm environment, then there is no need to unlearn unhelpful behaviors picked up from private practice. The caveat is that you need to build credibility quickly as an in-house attorney without firm experience. Having prior business experience is an added plus for this path, and legal ops and tech experience can also help. We will explore this further below.
Top 3 Skills to Build for Working In-House
Let’s get practical. What does “building credibility” look like in practice? The skills needed for a corporate counsel function involve knowing how to work with different departments that each have their own priorities, which may or may not align. If you’re looking to implement a new contract management technology in the legal team, for example, this means anticipating that the value add for that product will be measured differently for each team. Accounting will be interested in spending, sales will look at effects on cycle time for deals, legal will be interested in cutting down manual work in the contract lifecycle, and IT might focus on privacy concerns of uploading contracts into a cloud database. In a firm context, the concerns might revolve around the priorities that a partner, client, and senior associate may have.
Gaining know-how within the in-house function may seem daunting, so here are 3 key skills to build for the role.
This is essential for any role, and transitioning in-house is no exception. Networking is necessary not only to get you in front of people that can get you in-house, but also to build contracting skills and interpersonal skills like interfacing with people with competing priorities. Following contract and in-house influencers on LinkedIn is a first step in doing this. Some examples include Lisa Lang, Laura Frederick, Heather Stevenson, Flo Nicolas, and Nada Alnajafi.
This comes down to transparency. People need to see what you are working on, how fast you are completing tasks, and the “why” behind your motivations. Cross-functional collaboration can improve your transparency day-to-day and therefore increase how reliable you seem to peers and coworkers. For instance, make sure your finance, procurement, and engineers know who you are and are not nervous to bring legal issues to your attention.
Staying up to date with technology is also another way to increase reliability in your role. These days, the only constant is that technology is continuously advancing, so by staying on top of new innovations, you can remain relevant even as the nature of your work changes.
Finally, reporting statistics helps frame and prove your ability to be reliable while on the job. Including language like “Reviewed X contracts in Y amount of time, leading to Z% increase in efficiency” in your resume provides objective metrics to define ways you add value. More immediately, these statistics help your sales colleagues know that you don’t “kill” deals.
Read, read, read. Increasing subject matter expertise increases legitimacy. Reading books like “A Simple Guide to Legal Innovation” or “The Tech Contracts Handbook,” attending conferences, taking CLEs (Continuing Legal Education classes), and joining practical industry groups (such as TechGC) on contract drafting are ways of doing this. Further, there are a multitude of webinars (such as Laura Frederick’s “How to Contract” offerings) and drafting classes at law schools that can help build your competencies and prepare you for an in-house role.
Legal Industry Shifts
Legal tech and in-house companies need to do better in providing opportunities for law students to get hired right after graduating. In the legal industry, there is a problem of the chicken and the egg. Companies with in-house teams don’t want to hire law students because they prefer pre-trained people, but law schools will not offer enough classes to prepare students to go in-house if there are no opportunities there for new lawyers. Therefore, law students get stuck in a cycle of needing experience to get experience, and continue to see working at law firms as their only viable post-graduation options. Companies need to consider the cost “un-training” that needs to occur with candidates coming from a firm when weighing the cost of “training” fresh young lawyers.
If you want to develop talent for an entry-level perspective, then you need to offer training. Examples of training include providing practical sessions with other in-house lawyers who demonstrate how to negotiate certain clauses, ”ride-alongs” where new candidates watch an actual contract negotiation, and corporate/virtual universities with content from subject matter experts. The key here is for the training to be practical. There is a lot of opportunity here for legal tech startups to offer this training too.
Law schools also need to provide opportunities and prepare law students for the realities of pursuing a career in a corporate counsel role. Traditionally, law school graduates would be funneled into firms that weighed grades and school credentials heavily in recruitment. Now, there is a shifting trend. People are opening up to recognize more diverse opportunities upon graduation from law school. This is partially driven by the rise of legal operations and tech, which has led to more options for lawyers fresh from graduation. Lawyers are now weighing consulting offers from big firms like EY and Deloitte, as well as roles in legal operations, legal tech, sales, product, and even legal engineering.
Flexibility of the legal degree is on the resurgence. Top law schools are recognizing the versatility and flexibility of the legal degree, but still put up clerkships and big law as the more glamorous pathways. The legal industry is inherently hierarchical, but are things changing? Are students changing what they think are valid paths?
With the rise and importance of social media platforms like LinkedIn, there is increased visibility into alternative career paths, direct access to prominent people in the field, and opportunity to maximize your own marketability. For example, LinkedIn can allow you to connect with in-house attorneys that aren’t coming to your campus for OCI (on-campus interviews). OCI is typically a numerical, enclosed environment, but you can set yourself apart in other ways by going straight to the source. Students are finding ways to take advantage of this. In the current “war for talent,” companies are not tapping into these huge pools of candidates. These candidates already have the drive and grit to succeed in-role, and just need some training to fully get there.
Further, now that more lawyers are working in-house, there is a shift in power from law firms to in-house teams. At law firms, it’s about looking competitive at the top of a triangle. In general counsel roles, the focus is on working collaboratively in the center of a network. The firm environment is resistant to change, so sometimes the best way to break out of it is to leave it. But do this gracefully, while accelerating your career path, and helping an organization grow.
Don’t let the rat race of law school and pre-destined paths make decisions for you. Get resources, get a career coach, and network equally with people– from those in law firms to in-house to pro bono. Read books, watch webinars, and be hungry for resources that can teach you the basics of contract drafting and negotiating. Building a knowledge base will help you understand the mechanics of clauses, contracts, knowing the law, and how to issue-spot.
What does this look like in practice? Let’s use the example of us, the authors. As a student, Memme founded the Harvard Legal Technology Symposium with a Harvard Law peer to fill gaps he saw in the legal tech curriculum. To build up this content, Memme met with and worked with people outside of law school, broadening his connections and enriching the Symposium with his learnings. The Symposium has continued on and has only grown in relevance. When Jack saw going in-house as a viable opportunity, but had “only” been at a Big Law firm for two years, he filled gaps in his experience with the above insights to fast-track his transition. As Jack advises, “You can learn enough to be dangerous.”
Learn enough to spot issues that general counsels confront, then go out and build a career that you want to grow in.