How to maximize your time at a law firm to prepare for going in-house

maximise law firm in-house

It’s never too soon to start preparing for your move in-house. Recruiters and in-house attorneys share their advice on how to make the most of your time at a law firm to become a top in-house candidate.

Chambers Associate: Why do people make the move from working in a law firm to working in-house? 

Kathy Leo, chief legal officer at Chobani: I hadn’t really planned on going in-house: I only decided to do so when I was seconded to a mutual fund business for a year and I quickly realized I wanted to be connected to a single business and work to achieve its goals, rather than swooping in and out of different client matters.

I also liked the idea of being involved in the problem-solving process from the onset rather than being brought in a later stage or as a specialist, which is what often happens when you work for a firm. As a firm lawyer, you often work more like a consultant – advising your clients who can choose to take or leave your advice. As an in-house attorney, you have a stake in the game and you’re the one responsible, together with your business partners, in assessing the risk and making the tough decisions.

Patricia O’Byrne: co-managing partner at E.P. Dine: There’s also the work-life balance aspect. You work hard in-house, but there is a higher level of visibility to the demands of upcoming work, and therefore predictability, in-house. For example, in-house, you are more likely to be able to make, and keep, a weekend commitment several weeks in the future. Your career can be very demanding and rewarding in-house; it is just a different rhythm.

Maria Harris, chief legal officer at Packable: I realized that what I enjoyed most about practice wasn’t jumping from deal to deal, it was making connections with companies’ management teams, getting to learn their business operations and what their key commercial and legal issues were. That meant I was best placed in-house, where I could become embedded in the business by making decisions on behalf of the business and look for ways to advance the company’s business goals.


CA: At what stage of their career do lawyers typically go in-house?

Melissa Collery, co- managing partner at E.P. Dine: Associates are typically marketable for in-house positions after about three or four years of practice. At that point, associates have enough foundational training to bring immediate value to a company, and they aren’t too senior to fit into the overall structure of a legal department.

MH: I think timing is pretty fluid and depends on the role you’re going for. Having a few years of experience as a mid-level is preferable because in-house work isn’t just about the ability to do the job well, it’s also about being able to manage cross-functionally.


CA: What can associates do whilst at a law firm to prime themselves for an in-house position? 

MH: I tried to spend as much time as possible with the legal teams at the companies I was working with to get a handle on what their lives were like and to make sure I understood what an in-house role would be like.

My career in M&A prepared me for the generalist roles I’ve had as an in-house lawyer because lots of the work I did as an associate was about identifying key business issues then bringing the team together to solve them. For example, if I was doing due diligence and came across property-related issues, I would reach out to the property attorneys in my firm for their expertise. That preparation has been invaluable because a lot of the work I do as a GC is about identifying an issue, then working out which people we need inside and outside of the company to solve it.


"When interviewing for an in-house position, employers will dig in on what you did, how much drafting and negotiation experience you had, and your level of client engagement."


MC: You need to be assertive and proactive about getting as much substantive work as possible. If there is a particular type of work you are interested in, be a bit of a squeaky wheel and volunteer to work with partners in those areas in whatever capacity you can. Also, don’t simply gravitate towards the largest or most high-profile deals; rather try to find opportunities to get as much responsibility and client contact as possible. When interviewing for an in-house position, employers will dig in on what you did, how much drafting and negotiation experience you had, and your level of client engagement. They will be less impressed hearing about a front-page deal that involved little substantive work, than they would if you could speak in detail about a deal where you worked at a more independently at a senior level.

KL:  You need to lift your head up and spend time building relationships and networking and getting out of the office to attend events. I wasn’t always good at doing that at times because I was often overwhelmed by work, but pretty much every job I’ve ever had I got as the result of my network.  Having relationships and being known as a good person to work with and being known for doing great work is so important because it means people will think of you when opportunities come up. Remember that your peers will move on to new opportunities too, so they also can be a great resource for future employment opportunities.  The most fundamental advice I give people is your reputation precedes you – ultimately it is a small world.

POB: Networking and making client contacts are important, but the most important thing you can do is to get substantive training. Demonstrating that you can independently draft and negotiate deals as a corporate lawyer, or manage cases as a litigator, will make you more attractive to in-house employers. Most in-house legal departments are lean and do not have the bandwidth to do deep legal training. They need lawyers who can stand on their own two feet and who will be accretive to the business.


CA: How does the work in-house differ? Do these lawyers need a different skillset?

MH: My work at firms was more consistent; although I would work on different transactions, the subject matter was often the same and concerned either M&A or finance. On any given day as an in-house lawyer, the issues can range from real estate to IP, from litigation to employment, and more.

Skill-wise, it depends on the role. Juniors and mid-levels are expected to produce work that’s error-free, but as an in-house lawyer you rarely have time for perfection. You have to adopt a mindset of thinking broadly: find the true question that needs answering, which may differ from the question someone is actually asking you –they might have missed the bigger picture. You need to be able to analyse a lot of information quickly and deliver practical legal advice that might require risk. This can all be quite daunting, but also very exciting.

KL: Lawyers at firms tend to be more specialized - tax lawyers do tax work, employment lawyers do employment. When you go in-house, you’re jack of all trades.  I always say to my team you need to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” because you will invariably do work outside of your particular area of expertise.  So whilst you’re working at a firm, I would encourage you don’t take your work at face value, rather understand what you’re doing and the why. When you’re working long hours, it can be hard to do so, but when you’re dealing with a tax colleague or an employee benefits colleagues, try to understand why they’re giving certain advice because when you go in-house, the work will come across your desk and you just have to figure it out.


CA: Are there many opportunities outside of the corporate space?

POB: There are more opportunities than ever before for litigators, but unfortunately those numbers are still small as compared to the opportunities for corporate lawyers. There have been an increasing number of compliance and regulatory opportunities for litigations, which can be quite interesting, and there are always opportunities for employment, IP, and technology litigators. For every litigation role, we will see six corporate roles.


CA: How does the need for commercial awareness differ in-house compared to law firms?

MH: It’s critically important to fundamentally understand the businesses of the company you’re hoping to work at. My first in-house role was as at a pharma company, but I didn’t have any experience in that industry. So, as soon as I started, I spent time with the key people in the company to understand their functions and where business risks and opportunities lay.

When I worked at manufacturing companies, like Warner Chilcott and Revlon, I spent time in the manufacturing facilities and in the development labs. Later, when I joined more retail focused organizations, such as The Body Shop and SoulCycle, I both visited and worked at the retail stores and studios, to better understand our customer base and the day-to-day operations. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of spending time learning as much about the everyday operations of the business when starting a new role.


"I wish I’d taken a finance course because it’s super helpful knowledge to have as a corporate attorney."


KL: What you do in your first 60 days is critical – that’s the time to ask the questions to ensure you understand the business and its levers and terminology, you can’t ask those questions a year down the line. I wish I’d taken a finance course because it’s super helpful knowledge to have as a corporate attorney. You can’t be a good corporate lawyer without understanding some of the basic financial terminology being used.

MC: While you have to be commercially aware to be an effective law firm attorney, your highest value is your technical expertise and producing a perfect product. As an in-house attorney, you are expected to learn the business and the be able to assess risk, make judgment calls, and support your clients in a way that is impossible without having a deep understanding of how the company operates, its pain points, risk profile, and business goals.

POB: Having commercial awareness when working at a firm is not easy. Obviously, your commercial awareness will improve with years of practice, but it is still hard.

The in-house lawyer often has better commercial awareness than outside counsel because the in-house lawyer understands the day-to-day business better and the company’s risk tolerance more thoroughly. This insight allows an in-house lawyer to frame conversations for the business team in a way that explains the legal risk within the context of that company's risk tolerance.


CA: What can associates do if they’re not getting much client contact?

KL: Client contact is really important. No business person is going to be impressed by your perfect markup: they’re looking get deal the done and mitigate risk. Even if you’re not getting direct contact, you should start figuring out what clients are really looking for and how best to accomplish it.

MH: It can be a sensitive issue to navigate, but I’ve generally found that if you’re proactive, people will be receptive. Ask to be part of partners’ client meetings. If the firm works with certain clients a lot and there are opportunities to network with them, then take the opportunities. There are also industry organizations you can join – networking opportunities aren’t just found inside the firm.

Generally speaking, it’s great to build a networking both personally and professionally. It’s enriching to have a network of folks to call upon because you never know when you’re going to need to reach out to people for advice, and vice versa.

CA: What are the main factors associates should focus on to prepare themselves for moving in-house?

MC: Associates need to be strategic. If you are not getting the work you want, ask for it. It is ok to move from one firm to another to get into the practice that best sets you up for the in-house job you want, but our clients consider it a red flag if an attorney has moved lots of times as it casts doubt on your judgment, stickiness, and adaptability.

It’s also important to start talking to people a couple of years before you plan to move – don’t wait until you’re miserable. Talk to recruiters, more senior people in the firm, classmates from law school and friends who have made the move so you can understand what the different options are. Do you want to be part of a giant legal department, or do you want to be the company’s only lawyer? Start-up or Fortune 500? There are so many things to consider, so talking to people who have already made the transition is very helpful.

KL: The recent increase in video usage makes connecting with others much easier. If you want to make the move in-house, you don’t necessarily have to meet in-person. I would recommend committing to devote a certain amount of time every week to network or reach out to recruiters, no matter what else you have going on. It can be hard when you have work demands, but the work will always be there. Lots of people end up staying at law firms not because they wanted to, but because they got stuck on the treadmill and didn’t know how to get off.


CA: Do you have any final words of wisdom?

MC: When considering your first in-house move, make a “smart” move, but don’t put enormous pressure on yourself to find the “perfect” job. First of all, there really is no such thing; there are going to be pros and cons to every position. Also, you are likely going to make several moves in your in-house career. There is tremendous mobility for lawyers once you are in-house and it’s unusual these days to join a company and stay in the same role for 20 years. Most of the time, our clients require candidates for senior-level and General Counsel positions to have had in-house experience in addition to law firm experience, so if you hesitate too long to move in-house, you might be at a disadvantage when applying for senior in-house roles. If you have done your due diligence and are excited about an in-house role for the right reasons, don’t set the bar unreasonably high. Take the leap and get as much out of it as you can. You have a long career ahead of you!

MH: It’s good to demonstrate curiosity – at every stage of your career. Ask as much about the deal you’re on as possible: what does the client do? What does the business do more broadly? How does the partner work? Deals move very quickly but having the curiosity to go beyond the assignment presented to you is not just helpful in developing your skillset, but for developing relationships too.

KL: I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to work at a large firm to do so because it’s a phenomenal training ground. Frankly, I might have stayed at my firm longer for the experience had I not been seconded and seen what it was like to be on the business side so early on in my legal career. Even if you join a law firm knowing that you ultimately want to go in-house, it’s still really important to prove yourself and do great work and build relationships. It’s a small world out there and your name will get around.

Also, be really deliberate about what you want. Sometimes that means figuring out what you want by talking to people at different types of company. I’ve worked for small, mid-sized and large companies and the experiences were vastly different.  Take the initiative and explore what opportunities are out there, don’t wait for opportunities to come to you.