Sometimes a Lateral Law Firm Move is the Best Path to a Solid In-House Position

A large percentage of the people who contact us for recruitment assistance are currently working in-house and are looking to return to the law firm sector or break into it for the first time. What most of these candidates don’t realize is that it is generally much more difficult to transition from an in-house position to a law firm position than it is to lateral from one law firm to another.

Many of those who end up moving from a law firm to an in-house position tell us that they preferred the law firm environment. Their reasons vary, but some common themes include: same stress, different hours; a lack of substantive and/or interesting work; a feeling that their skills are not developing at the appropriate pace; the sense that they are stuck working on matters that are not of interest to them or are not within their areas of expertise; a lack of meaningful promotion/progression prospects; and the belief that the companies they are working for are not growing at the pace the candidate expected.

Because so many of the candidate who contact us are in-house and are unhappy and because it is often very difficult to make the transition back into the law firm environment, I often find myself explaining to candidates why, in many cases, the best path to a reliable and fulfilling in-house position is a solid law firm lateral move.

There are multiple reasons for this. First, since the economic downturn, there has been a shift in the amount of experience companies look for when searching for qualified in-house counsel. Prior to the downturn, it was often said that corporate attorneys could comfortably look to make an in-house transition after 5 years of experience, while litigators had more success in or around the 8-10 year range. However, as a result of the downturn, many highly qualified and experience senior-level government employees, law firm partners and senior in-house attorneys suddenly found themselves on the job market, either as a result of lay-offs, department collapses, or company mergers and dissolutions.

As a result, at the height of the downturn, there was suddenly an overwhelming number of highly qualified but unemployed attorneys, often with excellent credentials, who were now vying for the same in-house jobs as the corporate attorneys with 5 years of experience and the litigators with 8-10 years of experience. Companies started to realize that they could hire attorneys with twice the experience and could do so at the same pay grade. As a result, demand for years of experience crept up, as did demand for credentials, and companies began looking for corporate attorneys with at least 8-10 years of experience and litigators with at least 10-15 years of experience. This trend still holds in many respects, especially as companies continue to outsource less of their legal work in order to keep costs down and, as a result, require more seasoned and experience inside counsel to handle the company’s legal matters.

Attorneys who choose to make a strong lateral law firm move put themselves in a position to continue developing their legal skills while simultaneously honing niche practice area expertise that will, in the long run, make them more marketable in the in-house job sector. Those candidates who genuinely want to make an in-house move will have far greater and far better in-house job prospects – at least in the current economic climate – if they get the level and degree of experience in-house companies are now demanding. Additionally, candidates who take the time to further refine their skills and their practice area strengths before making an in-house move are less likely to feel that they are not being challenged, are working on matters outside their area of expertise or interest and/or are not further developing their legal skills.

Additionally, making an informed lateral move to another law firm can actually aid candidates in making a good in-house move down the road. Many of the “currently in-house” candidates who seek our recruiting services in order to return to the law firm sector tell us that they are unhappy in their current job and that the position is not what they were expecting. In other words, they accepted their current position without knowing enough about the company they joined and the legal work that the position involved.

While it is difficult to know what a job will entail before beginning that job, one way to protect against this is to get meaningful client contact while working at a law firm and then use that contact, and the resulting client relationships, to make an informed in-house move. In other words, if you want to make a good in-house move,  first focus on making a lateral move to a law firm that will allow you the opportunity for meaningful client contact. This is critical, not just to allow young attorneys to further develop their skills and begin managing cases, but also because it puts attorneys in a position to develop client relationships that can have long-standing benefits.

Meaningful client contact can open the door to possible in-house positions with clients (or client subsidiaries) you have come to realize would be good fits for your long-term aspirations. Having worked directly for the client and repeatedly interacted with members of the legal department, you will be much better positioned to know if the company will be a good fit for you. Relatedly, meaningful client contact can result in secondment opportunities, where law firm attorneys are seconded out to the client and actually working at the client site, in the client’s legal department, while still functioning as a law firm employee. This is a fantastic way for attorneys to “test drive” a prospective in-house employer while still having the security of their law firm job (and salary).

When interviewing with law firms, let them know at the outset that significant client contact is very important to you. Most firms will understand that it is also in their best interest to allow their associates to interact with clients – not just because it helps the firm’s attorneys develop their skills and frees partners up to develop additional business, but also because it is simply good business. When former law firm attorneys lateral to a client site, generally speaking, those firms are guaranteed continued business from that particular client. In other words, everyone wins.

Lastly, many candidates who initially contact us in search of in-house opportunities ultimately realize that they are more excited about, and a better fit for, positions at boutique or mid-sized firms or even satellite offices of larger firms. Often these candidates are searching for a more intimate work environment, and the opportunity to work on a variety of legal matters, or they simply want to be in an environment where they feel they can make a greater contribution and are more consistently valued. We have seen a number of similarly situated candidates lateral to a smaller firm or a satellite office of a larger firm only to realize that they don’t actually want to transition to an in-house position after all. In other words, by making a smart and strategic law firm move, these attorneys often discover that what they were really seeking was a different, or more compatible law firm environment rather than an escape from law firms altogether.

The legal market is extremely competitive right now, with law firms typically seeking lateral attorneys from other firms and paying little credence to in-house attorneys (notwithstanding those attorneys’ prior law firm experience). My hope is that, with the above in mind, attorneys can limit the number of obstacles they have to face in the current job market, both by really considering the benefits of lateral law firms moves and by making well-informed decisions about possible in-house opportunities.

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