Accelerating Your Job Search as a Junior Law Firm Associates Targeting an In-House Counsel Role

Handsome businessman smiling outside the office building

A client and friend of mine, who is a relatively recent law graduate (let’s call him Jamie), feels like he is running out of steam and options. He has now worked at two mid-sized law firms and encountered the same issues at both of them:

(1) lack of real training or diversified work,

(2) disinterest by the partnership in developing his (or others’) careers,

(3) false deadlines,

(4) extremely high stress,

(5) misrepresentations about the number of hours expected, and

(6) compensation that does not keep pace with the above demands.

Jamie has now set his sights on an in-house job, given the above as well as some personal health issues, which make the stress and hours even less bearable.

The common wisdom is that attorneys, once they are already at a firm, try to build up (and out) their experience until they hit the four or five-year mark. That way, they come into an in-house role ready to add value, hopefully possessing some business skills, an expertise in an area of demand and/or solid corporate generalist skills. In other words, they have more to offer an employer and less need to be trained from the ground up.

But sometimes, the common wisdom fails.

For Jamie and others who are not getting the benefit of the law firm bargain, they may feel like they have little incentive to stay. They will not be significantly more prepared after two, three or four more years with a firm. They may handle very little work that is relevant to a future in-house role. Further, their commitment to practicing law, self-image and physical health can erode very quickly in the macho, every-lawyer-for-themselves environment that embodies many current law firms.

Here’s my job search advice for Jamie and other junior lawyers in this situation:

(1) Meet in-house lawyers, in-house recruiters and business people. Broaden and leverage your network, and invest your networking time in individuals who can and are motivated to make connections for you. Start with people you already know and ask them who else they know. Keep this priority going and find a way to organize yourself around the effort so you can use your time efficiently.

If, like Jamie, you face both health concerns and limited free time, see if there is a way to make these connections in a recreational setting, if those connections have similar interests and goals. Meet for rock climbing instead of drinks, for example, all things being equal. Or choose a scenic city walk over a sedentary coffee. If you are connecting by phone, consider standing or walking in place (if you can keep your concentration going) to get some blood flowing.

(2) Figure out what skills your need to land the right jobs and find a way to get them. Job descriptions are the first step informationally in that regard, but also look to online articles, company websites, conferences and the information you can glean from your network. (See #1 above.)

Your skill-acquisition may well include specialized skills that are highly relevant to in-house roles, such as privacy and cybersecurity. This could be through a formal certification program (such as CIPP) or simply by taking a seminar in, for example, GDPR. Other legal skills, such as contracts, employment law, litigation and compliance are always helpful. If you can round out your skills, it will serve you well in most in-house legal departments.

(3) Find ways to take on leadership roles. Find internal and/or external opportunities to grow your leadership capacity, a key competency for any in-house attorney. Whether you follow the in-house road up to General Counsel or take a detour, consider what organizations value in their GCs and set your compass accordingly. Roles in non-profit or professional organizations, such as the ACC or a bar association, can provide valuable opportunities to grow both your network and your leadership skills. So can smaller commitments, such as helping organize an event or CLE. Over time, these organizations may also offer the chance to build out your public speaking or writing skills, which can double as thought leadership and help distinguish you from other junior lawyers.

(4) Launch a job search and personal branding campaign. As you are retooling your skills and redirecting your value proposition toward your new audience, take a look at your LinkedIn profile and resume to make sure they (a) reflect what you can offer to future employers, (2) include your certifications and special skills and (3) align with what you will say about yourself in an interview. If you reasonably confident that it won’t have a negative impact on your current role, consider turning on Open Candidates and populating it to match your targets.

(5) Opportunistically consider alternate options. Even if transitioning to a role as in-house counsel is your main target, consider other opportunities if they arise or could be easily pursued (without overtaxing your available time) and they represent areas in which you would enjoy growing your career. For some, this may mean being open to non-profit or government positions. For others, a hybrid business-law role might make more sense, if it fits their interests and strengths and they happen to have (or can create) the right connections.

(6) Get “smart” about what an in-house role is like, especially at your target organizations. Through online research, try to develop a composite picture of the range and scope in-house roles. For example, if you are a litigator, which organizations could make special use of your skills and how can you position yourself to get in front of them? Where can you get information about specific questions, such as compensation? How can you learn what it’s really like to work in a specific industry or company? Even if some of the insights you find are not geared toward lawyers, they can help you understand the mindset of your interviewers.

This inside knowledge will help you size up the move and calm your nerves. It also can help you avoid mistakes in the interview process by not making assumptions about in-house practice that do not match up to reality. Having some “street cred” – i.e., savvy about the environment you wish to enter – gives you a clear advantage over the competition and will ease your transition as well.

(7) Use job boards sparingly. A few job boards, such as the ACC’s In-House Jobline Listings, are geared directly toward in-house roles. LinkedIn, as well as other sites, also offers the opportunity to set a specialized search and let company recruiters know you are interested. (Start by setting up a job alert and then follow the prompts.) Yet even these specialized tools have their limitations and can be a large time investment for little reward, as hundreds if not thousands of candidates may apply for every role.

(8) Reach out directly to organizations that interest you and follow up any prior leads. As you are building out your networking connections, find ways to get to know people within organizations that interest you, so you can better understand the culture and business model (or mission, as the case may be) and be on the short list of candidates who are informed first when a role opens up. Have your pitches about “why you” and “why them” (i.e., what interests you about, and what value you can add to, this particular organization) ready to go for a cover letter, elevator pitch and/or interview. You never know when the call may come, so it pays to be ready when it does!

Feel free to make a comment, post a question or “like” this post below. Thanks!


Anne Marie Segal Post Banner

Anne Marie Segal is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice. Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development. 

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse here.


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ABOUT ANNE MARIE SEGAL Anne Marie Segal, founder of Segal Coaching LLC, is a career and leadership coach, author and resume writer who guides attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs through career transitions, advancement, job interview preparation, leadership development and personal branding. A former finance and hedge fund attorney, Anne Marie has presented to the United Nations (ICTY/MICT), University of Chicago, United Way, Association of Corporate Counsel and National Resume Writers Association, among other organizations. She has published two career-related books: Master the Interview: A Guide for Working Professionals and Know Yourself, Grow Your Career: The Value Proposition Workbook, written on career and resume topics as a Forbes Coaches Council member at Forbes.com and been quoted on CNBC.com, Monster.com and other media outlets. You can learn more at AnneMarieSegal.com or visit her LinkedIn profile at linkedin.com/in/annemariesegal.

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