Chances are when you began your law firm career, you dreamed about making partner. Next would be managing partner. And then, the icing on the proverbial cake: name partner. It was all part of the 20-year plan – and everything seemed to be falling precisely in place.
After all, you graduated college with a near-perfect GPA, aced your LSAT and got accepted into a competitive law school. You finished in the top third of your class and participated in a leading law journal, landing an enviable summer internship. And you parlayed that internship into a choice, first-year associate position at a top firm.
You knew about the crazy hours and billables, but you had a killer work ethic and nothing would slow you down.
Maybe you were one of the lucky ones and got to do a rotation through several practice areas to find the right fit. But, more likely than not, you were slotted into a practice area based on where the partners needed your sweat labor.
And sweat you did – you pored through countless due diligence files, you joined (but did not participate in) multi-hour conference calls, you polished boilerplates into fine works of art. You even crafted agreements during your second and third years under the intense scrutiny of senior associates and partners.Abraham Lincoln said, “The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every calling, is diligence.” The same could be said for the job of finding the right General Counsel.
The eureka moment
It wasn't until two or three years down the line -- after another strong (yet non-committal) annual review -- that you finally had the opportunity to catch your breath. That's when you finally asked yourself: Is this really how I want to spend the next umpteen years of my life? And, more importantly, what are my other options?
That's when you started thinking about what life would be like on the other side – as in-house counsel.
Now, you're obviously nobody's slacker. This isn't only about work-life balance for you (although getting to spend time at your summer rental without being tethered to your phone or laptop is a definite plus). It's more about feeling connected to a business, instead of rushing from one transaction to the next. It's about getting to lend a voice to a company's strategic vision.
Given how you landed in your current practice area, my advice to you is this: Take the time to think before you jump.
Finding the color of your in-house parachute:
- Whether you minored in computer science in college or read tech blogs for fun, the high-tech sector might be the perfect place to build your in-house career. You don't have to be an IP lawyer to qualify (although it doesn't hurt). Today, there are multiple practice areas that support technology businesses, from contracts and securities to real estate and M&A. Keep in mind that if you choose a smaller company or startup, you will likely be asked to wear more hats. This might even mean pitching in with employment issues or labor-related disputes. At a larger tech company, you are more likely to focus on a specific area of the business, much as you would in a law firm.
- If you're a patent lawyer or have a strong background in science, you will be a great candidate for a healthcare, pharmaceutical or bio-tech Your knowledge will be essential to understanding the legal complexities around what the company does, from identifying risks to seizing opportunities. This will position you to participate in strategy discussions instead of solely focusing on transactional law. For those with a healthy intellectual curiosity and an entrepreneurial bent, this may be an ideal way to transition from legal practitioner to business leader.
- Do you live and breathe M&A? If so, you will want to join a Fortune 500 company that invests significant capital in acquisitions. While there is an ebb and flow, you can expect to have a full docket of target acquisitions that require your analytical expertise. The good news is you'll get to send the more grueling scut work over to the firm of counsel, while you focus on the bright-line issues. Of course, overseeing the firm's work carries significant responsibility and you'll still be working under extreme deadline pressure when structuring big deals, but you'll get to play a pivotal role in implementing the company's long-term growth strategy.
- One question I am frequently asked is how tough it is to shift from litigation to in-house counsel? Rest assured, there are plenty of opportunities, especially if you developed an area of specialization, for instance in tech or medmal, particularly in product liability. On a positive note, most in-house organizations recognize that litigators have outstanding written and verbal communication skills and will happily consider you for a role requiring heavy contract negotiations, where your gift of gab and compulsive attention to deadlines will prove valuable.
- Are you a numbers person? If you have a background in tax law, securities or compliance, you will be a strong fit for any financial services This doesn't restrict you to a big bank. You could also leverage your skills at an insurance company, a brokerage house, a fintech startup or at the growing number of companies that sit at the cross-section of finance and tech, such as PayPal or Visa. Associates with compliance backgrounds – especially those who possess government experience – are always in high demand in today's heightened regulatory environment and will have their pick in choosing a corporate home. Risk and compliance officers can look forward to becoming trusted members of the leadership team.
Of course, I haven't touched upon countless other practice areas, including family and domestic law, trusts and estates, real estate and the like. Here's the bottom line: Your experience at a top law firm will definitely translate into a meaningful, highly paid in-house role.
As you consider the transition, one important thing to keep in mind is that being the voice of reason will not always make you a company hero. So be prepared to play the bad cop, at least sometimes, and make sure you have an appetite (or at least a stomach) for thoughtful risk-taking, since this is the bedrock of business success.
So, go ahead and ask yourself: What industries do you follow in the Wall Street Journal? And what do you do in your (limited) spare time? Do you enjoy shopping (i.e., eCommerce)? How about food and travel (i.e., hospitality)? Do you buy every gadget that hits the market (i.e., high tech)? Are you a health and fitness zealot? (i.e., healthcare, pharmaceuticals, bio-tech)
Remember, this is your opportunity to marry your talents with your personal passions. So take the time to fall in love with your new line of business.
Photo by Psychlawlogy