Having worked in a Plaintiff’s class action law firm and then in a product liability defense firm, I realized that my passion was for strategy, negotiation and anticipation and prevention of risks. I was eager to draft smart contracts and collaborate with business executives, instead of writing motions and structuring my life in increments of the billable hours. I wanted to work on “bet the company” deals and achieve win-win results for everyone involved.
I would tell my law firm self: don’t give up on your in-house dream. You know what you want and it’s really rare. Pursue it and the opportunity will present itself sooner or later. Do not settle in your career.
The difference in the lifestyle is so drastic, I frankly did not expect it. While at a defense law firm, I used to work till at least 7 pm every day, and also either half a day on a Saturday or Sunday, if not both. I would also enter my billables in the evening, after my son would go to bed. Since leaving the firm almost 5 years ago, I had worked probably 3 weekends a year. It’s really nothing. I also very rarely work in the evening, when I get home from work. And I finish my day between 6 and 7 pm. So it’s a really good work-life balance.
I remember my litigation days warmly and on occasion miss the thrill of a contested deposition or a court hearing.
The best aspect is of course to have weekends to spend with family and friends. There are also other significant pros – not to have to worry about making the hours because of being on vacation, being sick or caring for a family member. Overall, I often felt like I was a prisoner of the billable hours and my entire life was built around making the hours each month. One other great aspect is to have a generous PTO (vacation, observed holidays, etc.) Finally, there is no pressure of generating new business for the firm.
This is by far the biggest downside of going in-house. I took a significant pay cut and only now, almost 5 years later, caught up to the salary I was making while working at a defense law firm. My former firm colleagues have already bought nice houses and moved to the nicest neighborhoods of the city. Me – not quite there yet.
But for me, it was and still is well worth it. I am lucky to attend all my son’s school performances and soccer games each weekend. I have a great flexibility to take some Fridays off and take a weekend trip and otherwise enjoy time with family and friends.
The long-term financial picture of going in-house – it will take me years to catch up to the wealth and financial abilities of my former law firm colleagues. But again, it’s worth it for me.
I was not actively looking. I knew that I had very little chances landing my first in-house job with my resume (no ivy league law school, no prior in-house experience, no connections in Los Angeles where I have moved from Chicago just 3 years ago).
But then a life-changing event happened. Two co-founders of a tech startup were looking for a lawyer to set up an LLC for them and draft an operating agreement. They were asking around for a referral to an attorney who would be able to do this for them. A mutual friend has recommended me and introduced me to the co-founders. Even though I worked as an associate in a product liability and personal injury law firm, the firm allowed me to take the co-founders on as the firm’s clients and bill them an hourly rate for my services. We liked working together and soon became friends. The co-founders also liked my work product and my legal advice along the way. Eventually, the co-founders raised capital and took me on board as a third co-founder and general counsel. And just like that, I moved in-house.
While I did not network at all to get my first in-house role, I did A LOT for my current job. A little over 2 years after staring working for the startup, the business was suffering losses and the company decided it was best (and cheaper) to use outside counsel and eliminated my position. I began to search. I networked, attended breakfasts and luncheons and various events for in-house counsel. Thankfully, I have already been a member of TechGC back then and had full access to networking events. I went on informational interviews, coffees and drinks with anyone who could have potentially helped me get a new lead. I also worked with a recruiter. After about a 3-month search, I had offers from two prominent litigation law firms on the table, but I was waiting for the dream job. After about another month, I finally got it. A large international France-based corporation was looking for a general counsel for its US-based portfolio companies in the smart mobility division. I applied in response to a positing on LinkedIn. After several rounds of interviews, I got the job.
For this particular job, it was a cold email in response to the LinkedIn positing by a recruiter. I read the job posting carefully and slightly tailored my resume to highlight what I believed was most relevant experience for the job. In my emails with the recruiter, I’ve been very cordial and polite and made the whole vetting process easy for him (responded promptly and thoroughly, provided documents he asked for and was otherwise accommodating). It was very important to make a positive impression on the recruiter since he was the gatekeeper of my dream job. After two phone interviews with the recruiter, I got my first company interview.
For this job, I had 3 rounds of interview – the first one was with the HR representative, the second one was with the world GC of the Smart Mobility Division of the French parent company and the last one was with the CEO. I report to both world GC and the CEO. The HR representative has a few general questions and then administered a bar-exam like test consisting of 3 essays.
The GC asked me a lot of questions about my career and asked to describe in detail what I did as a GC of the startup and as a law firm associate. For him, defense law firm experience was very valuable in terms of being able to assess the risks of litigation and have a good idea about what to do if a complaint was brought. In addition, he loved hearing about my plaintiffs’ class action law firm experience – I presented it in a way that it was valuable to anticipate and prevent class actions against the company.
The CEO asked less of legal career questions and more of “character” questions, to make sure I was the right fit for the company and his team.
I strongly believe in character and work ethics types of questions and always ask them to see if this is the person I can rely on, if he/she will be responsible, will take initiative and ownership of the projects on day one, etc. I believe that I can teach a new hire the way we do things in this legal department but it is not possible to teach someone to be on time well-organized, be a good team player and have stellar work ethics.
One-word response – GOOGLE.
For every position you are about to be interviewed, you need to google:
a) Each person who will interview you. See where they worked before, which school they went to. You really need to connect on a personal level – they are looking for someone to work with, so they need to like you first and foremost. Also google their career and accomplishments and see if there is any common ground with your career. Bring it up at the interview – they will appreciate how well prepared you are.
b) The company and the industry. You need to know EVERYTHING there is to know about both. You can’t be over-prepared here really. If there is something on the internet – you must know it. You also need to understand how the industry works. No one has time to teach you from scratch. They will prefer to hire someone with the knowledge of the industry, so you must show that you have this knowledge at your interview.
You also need to make sure:
1. Your resume is perfect. Even a small typo might be a deal breaker for someone. Have someone proof-read it.
2. You resume must highlight the experience the company is looking for. Present your law firm experience in such a way.
3. You can intelligently speak about every single line on your resume, no matter how long ago it took place. If you don’t remember – take it out.
4. You ask questions. A lot of questions. You need to show genuine interest in working there and in understanding how they operate. I would say, there should be at least 2-3 different questions posted to each interviewer. It’s important that the questions are different – they talk to each other and compare notes.
If your ultimate goal is to end up in house – do everything you can to end up there. A path of joining the legal department of one of the current clients of your law firm is the most obvious path. Try to get as many opportunities as possible interacting with the clients of your firm directly. For example, I really like one young female attorney who works for a law firm we use as our outside counsel. If there is ever an opportunity for me to expand our legal department – she is the first one I will call and offer the position. If she does not accept it – we will engage the services of a recruiter. For the candidates, it means that getting a list of recruiters who place lawyers in-house off of LinkedIn and contacting them directly could maximize the chances of getting an in-house role.
Final word – networking is key. I know everyone says that, but it is really so. If 5 years ago, when I was still at the firm dreaming about going in-house, a friend of mine recommended someone else to the startup co-founders to set up their LLC, I would have still been in the law firm living the life of billable hours. Maintain relationships with your former employers and colleagues, post interesting content on your LinkedIn, start a legal blog, be active in your firm’s social life, especially if it involves client interaction, go one informational interview a month with in-house folks who have graduated from your law school, volunteer at the ACC events. You just never know when the opportunity will present itself, but it will for sure. I have no doubt.