So you (think you) want to go in house?

Radical transparency Sep 10, 2021

Ah, the elusive in-house counsel job. The promised land of work-life balance. The holy grail of attorney jobs. The corner piece in the brownie pan. Every attorney's dream.

Well. Far be it from me to throw shade at your dreams, at least not in this particular blog post. (Sorry tho, I'm going to have to do it at some point because this is actual reality, contrary to what some people believe, and there is no holy grail. ) In this post, I shall embrace your goal of an in-house job (and it CAN be a very worthy goal under the right circumstances) and tell you what you need to know to get one.

But seriously. Pay attention, because a lot of you THINK you know how to get one, buuuuuut ya don't.

And remember, I'm on your side in this post. I was in your shoes once--actually several times, I even scored an in-house job that I had to decline due to life circumstances. I've lived it, and I know what I'm talking about.

Photo by Josefa nDiaz / Unsplash

First: Understand that in-house hiring is NOT law firm hiring.

For the most part, law firm hiring is formulaic, uniform, and transparent, starting all the way back at OCI . If you've seen one law firm hiring process, you've kind of seen them all.

In-house hiring is VERY different from law firm hiring, and managing your expectations is essential. Here are some of the differences:

  1. It can be harder to learn about opportunities. Some companies may post on LinkedIn, others may engage a recruiting firm, and some may not post at all.
  2. The hiring process can be very opaque as compared to law firms. There might not be clear timelines, for example, or much transparency about the stages of the process. Will there be three rounds of interviews? Five? Will they get back to you in a week? A month?
  3. Every company has its own hiring process, that may not even remotely resemble another company's hiring process. This makes it more difficult to prepare, predict, and anticipate.
  4. It can be extremely competitive, much more so than law firm hiring.
  5. It is highly reactive to swings in the economy. Companies can go through an entire recruiting process, extend an offer that's accepted, and set a start date--but if things aren't looking good from a business perspective, the new hire could be out of luck.
Ailsa 2020
Photo by Jonathan Cosens Photography / Unsplash

Second: Understand who gets the jobs.

The VAST majority of in-house hiring happens directly between companies and the firms that represent them.

I would say, like, 80% at least. I can give sooo many examples of this just anecdotally, and personally. There are good reasons for this: if a company has already worked with a law firm legal team, they can have greater confidence in the caliber of a new hire from that team; conversely, law firms have an incentive to place their associates in-house at clients to strengthen the relationship.

Third: Figure out YOUR ideal timing for an in-house move.

Your level of experience when you go in-house matters a lot. Generally (although I hate to generalize), there is not the same progression of experience like you see in a firm, where you're given greater responsibility as you become more senior and the intention is to train you along the way. In many in-house roles, you're hired to do something, and you might stay there for quite a while.

This is why I strongly discourage more junior associates to look in-house, because I've seen too many instances where a junior person ends up stuck in a job pushing papers. This is also in part where the generally accepted recommendation of 4th-6th year comes from.

Even at the more senior levels, progression is different: while there definitely IS career progression if you go in-house at the right time, there still isn't a structured path to the top like in firms; many companies do not promote GCs from the inside, but rather hire big shot partners from fancy firms to fill those roles because, well, it sounds more impressive. (Not all, of course, many attorneys do work their way up to GC, but it's not a given that promotion happens internally.)

So, those are the truths of the in-house job search. Armed with all that truth, you might be wondering: how do I best position myself to get the in-house job that's right for me?

“You’re not creating if your not first enveloped with passion for your work”
Photo by Jason Strull / Unsplash

Here you go:

The Definitive Guide to Optimizing Your In-House Job Search in Four Easy Steps

  1. Reflect in advance on the type of in-house job you would want. What kind of company? What kind of role?
  2. Look at your current firm's clients, as well as associates from the firm who have gone in-house. Where did those associates go? Does the firm work with the types of clients you would want to work for? Most importantly, are YOU getting the opportunity to work with those clients? Because the associates getting hired by clients are usually the ones who have worked with those clients. If you're getting the client contact you want, great! No reason not to stay the course. BUT...
  3. If you realize your current firm isn't giving you the exposure to the clients you like, look around: which firms DO offer that exposure?
  4. Make a lateral move to one of those firms, ideally at least a year before you aim to go in-house so that you can build relationships once you're there.

Easy peezy lemon squeezy! Right?

I tried to shoot some “set design” photos just for fun with a friend and this is the result. Hope you like it!
Photo by Florencia Potter / Unsplash


Julia DiPrete

Biglaw survivor. Former Assistant Dean of the Duke Law Career Center. Currently exploring the magical world of legal recruiting. Yeah, I've pretty much seen it all. And I love to write.

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