Going In-House: How to Make the Pivot

When I begin working with an attorney seeking a new position, one of the first questions I ask is, “What do you actually want to be doing every day?” People often don’t have a very clear answer, which isn’t surprising. Attorneys who have been working in large law firms may not pause to consider whether moving to another firm is what they truly want. As I work with clients to explore a broad range of possibilities and envision the next step in their careers, going in-house can be an attractive option, affording a wide range of experiences.

Depending on the organization, an in-house position can offer a very different kind of pace, exposure, and style of collaboration—all of which can be a welcome shift from BigLaw. And if you’re job-hunting right now, you will likely see more opportunities for in-house roles as industries respond to the market changes wrought by COVID-19. If going in-house is your goal, know that it tends to be a longer game for those who don’t have prior in-house experience, and the search strategy is all about self-reflection and relationships.

Here are four specific ways your hunt for an in-house job will differ from seeking a law firm position—and strategies for making your search a success.

Evolve your mindset

If you’ve been in a firm for a while, you know the drill—the reporting structures, work expectations, common challenges. While all large firms differ from one another, there’s a fairly consistent set of cultural norms across BigLaw.

When you move from a law firm to in-house, you’re encountering a very different animal. The structure and culture of every company is unique, as are the problems you’re solving. An in-house attorney requires different equipage than a law firm attorney—you shift from serving a range of interests (including those of the firm as well as those of multiple clients) to focusing on a single company’s needs, whose business interests you are tasked with protecting.

This is a profound change and calls for an adjustment in your own mindset. Your success will depend on building relationships with people across the organization. Helping to realize the company’s larger vision is how you advance. Imagine what it means to support and invest deeply in one company’s interests and start your job search by cultivating the skills you’ll need to thrive in-house—emotional intelligence and communication skills.

Shift your search strategy

A successful transition to an in-house position calls for an investment in two key areas: research and targeted networking. While the legal skills you’ve honed at a firm are largely transferrable, what you may lack compared to your competition is industry knowledge. For every company and industry you’re interested in working for, educate yourself about the challenges and concerns they face. Collect information on your targets: their specific goals and pain points, the legal problems they need to solve, the business and market landscape.

To that end, join groups and organizations related to the sectors you’re targeting—this is also key to networking. It’s difficult to go in cold for an in-house position; developing relationships and becoming a known entity in industry circles opens the door for the introductions you need. Look for relevant ties within your existing network: Do you know any attorneys who have served as outside counsel for companies in your target industries? Do any of your LinkedIn contacts have connections to one of your target organizations? Have you worked on matters that involved the industries you’d like to pursue? Do you or members of your network have relationships with in-house attorneys?

Job boards can also be a valuable source of reconnaissance. Before you start responding to postings, get familiar with which companies are hiring and what industries have a large volume of openings in general—that may be where you’ll find the most opportunities. If you see an in-house position you want to pursue, pause to gather information. Use your network to get more details, such as what the culture’s like, whether you’d be managing outside counsel, and how the legal department interacts with the larger organization.

Rethink your resume 

Your marketing materials for an in-house position may look a bit different from those you’d develop for a law firm job. Perhaps the most important tenet to remember when crafting your resume and cover letter is this: don’t be afraid to tell your story.

Take the opportunity to show hiring decision-makers for in-house positions how your entire breadth of talent lines up with their needs. Highlight accomplishments that display your ability to work collaboratively across different groups and bring value to an organization, such as committee work, pro bono matters, firm citizenship, and community engagement.

Your cover letter is as important as your resume; it’s a chance to use your voice and display how your values align with the company’s. The things you might think a law firm would view as irrelevant—and even characteristics you may think of as weaknesses in the law-firm world (such as an unconventional professional, cultural, or educational background)—may be your biggest assets in the eyes of other employers.

Prep for personal connections

Getting ready for an interview with a law firm can sometimes feel like prepping for a test—and if you walk into an in-house interview with that perspective, you’ll leave disappointed. A really good interview is a dynamic conversation in which you and your prospective employer connect and explore how your expertise could help them solve business problems—the kind of professional rapport that can make you forget the meeting is an interview at all. (It does happen, if rarely!)

In-house interviews tend to rely heavily on behavioral interviewing techniques, so practice answering those kinds of questions. Spend time honing your active listening skills, imagining how you would solve legal problems in the business, and connecting the dots between your experience and the organization’s business needs. The best way to show your value is to be curious about the company’s needs and thoughtful about how you can help.

Both you and your interviewer have the same goal—to see if you’re the right fit for the role. Making a genuine connection facilitates that goal and gives you an opportunity to broaden your network, no matter the outcome of the interview. I’ve seen clients who weren’t a fit for a role receive a glowing referral from their interviewer for a different position within the company. I’ve even seen organizations create a new role for a stellar candidate!

Working as in-house counsel is certainly a different experience from law firm life. For some attorneys, it’s a welcome change toward a career path that—though it may not be what they’d imagined in the past—is ultimately a deeply rewarding one.

If you’re navigating the challenging employment market right now, take a moment to go back to that first question: What do you really want to be doing? Talk to in-house attorneys about their work, explore your own interests, and, if going in-house feels compelling, start preparing yourself for a different approach to job-hunting. You may find that the relationships you build along the way are as gratifying as the position you eventually land.