Making the transition to in-house counsel from law school or practicing another type of law is achievable, when you have the right mix of skills and experience on your resume.
By Monica Zent | June 11, 2019 at 01:29 PM | Originally published on Corporate Counsel
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Whether you are a newly minted lawyer ready to take the legal world by storm or a practicing attorney switching roles, to get that new job as an in-house lawyer you’ll need to have skills that set you apart from other candidates.
The reality is that corporations have fewer lawyers than law firms and they also have less turnover, so you’re competing for fewer spots. What’s more, the legal market overall has remained stagnant over the past eight years, while the US economy overall has improved, so the competition is fierce.
At ZentLaw we have helped lawyers for nearly two decades bridge from law school, law firms or other environments to an in-house opportunity through our secondment solutions. Over that period, we have honed what we look for in potential secondees and have identified some key themes.
In order to set yourself apart from the competition, it’s key to understand that corporate legal departments provide services to the rest of the company. That’s why hiring managers are looking for individuals with consistent prior work experience, a true service-oriented approach, a solid work ethic, and a willingness to learn.
If you are contemplating an in-house role, here are six skills to master to give yourself a leg up on the competition.
- First-rate legal finesse. Corporate law, litigation, commercial or intellectual property law are necessary skills for any in-house lawyer. If you’re still in law school, acquiring these skills may mean working through school and over the summer, paid or unpaid, to gain relevant experience. If you practice a different type of law, acquiring these skills may mean volunteering for projects or pro bono work outside your current employer.
- A knack for networking. Networking is a key skill to hone. Talk with many different types of lawyers to learn what they do and what they like and dislike about their role. Join networking groups that meet in person, as well as online forums and business networking sites like LinkedIn. Take advantage of the expertise in your network and ask questions to learn what’s involved in day-to-day in-house practices in different industries.
- Serious service skills. Lawyers must recognize that they are in a service industry. A good business lawyer acts as a true facilitator of what the business needs while balancing that with legal risk. That is why prior work experience in a service-oriented role demonstrates to potential employers that you have a “service mindset.” Don’t discount early work experience of this nature. In my book, early work experience involving working with the public such as working as a barista, retail sales associate, or bank teller, is always useful.
- Tech competence required. With an increasing likelihood for a duty of tech competenceto be legislated in your state (if it’s not already) ensure you have that part covered. Whether it’s creating and managing documents, using spreadsheets and word processing programs, communicating via services like videoconferencing and chat, and conducting legal research, you must be able to check the box on tech competence. Most new hires in a first in-house role won’t have a designated executive assistant, so it’s important to know how to navigate these technologies independently.
- Broad business ability. In-house lawyers need to understand the practical aspects of business. It is important to have knowledge of finance and budgets, understand how customer service fuels the business, and recognize the importance of protecting assets like facilities or intellectual property. These skills can come from a wide range of experiences, such as starting your own company, working at a business your parents had owned, or having worked within the industry of your in-house role in another capacity.
- Be humble. Being humble enough to understand that when you start out you don’t know everything, is an underrated value. Take the time to listen, absorb as much as you can from those around you, and learn. More senior in-house counsel are more likely to want to help a humble junior lawyer than one with an arrogant attitude. Recognizing that learning can come from many different sources and environments will help you gain greater wisdom in your role, which will help you in the long run.
The Bottom Line
There is no substitute for good, old-fashioned work experience—in or out of the legal industry. The kind of work you do and what you learn from it is always valuable and transferable in some form or another. Classes and certifications show your commitment to the area of interest, but work experience and references are gold.
You may have to do a lot of basic work when starting with an in-house legal department. The lawyers who succeed work hard, learn quickly and are hungry for any and every experience they can get. Making the transition to in-house counsel from law school or practicing another type of law is achievable, when you have the right mix of skills and experience on your resume.