How to make your move in house as legal counsel

There comes a point in every lawyers’ career when they must choose, either they make a run for partnership or they transition to a career in house. There are options outside of these two routes, however, 90% of associates in big law will find their careers advancing in pursuit of these lines.

Moving in house used to be seen as a way out for lawyers who couldn’t make it as a partner, thankfully that is no longer the perception. In house lawyers work very closely with one client and their roles are broader than that of a private practice lawyer. To move in house then is to marry rather than just date a client. If you decide this is for you, begin by appraising yourself honestly as a candidate. Analyse what options are available to you by considering whether:

  • You are at the right level of experience to move; The sweet spot for an in house move was traditionally viewed as being between 4-6 PQE (post qualification experience). This is still the easiest window to move within however it is now less exclusionary for those outside of that bracket. Lawyers at 1-2 PQE are in greater demand now than perhaps ever before and many go on to forge successful careers at great companies. At partner level it is certainly harder to move in house, but you haven’t necessarily ‘missed the boat’ if it hasn’t happened for you quite yet. If you are savvy in your approach and don’t price yourself out of the market, then a change is still possible.
  • You are at the right firm; If you are at a top US firm and are looking to move to a corporate client outside of a major city then 9 times out of 10 you will scare a prospective client off. The assumption will be you are highly paid and if you take a cut in compensation for the role you will ultimately be dissatisfied and move on after only a short time. Conversely, if you are at a regional practice seeking to move to a top fund it is unlikely to happen (at least not without a stepping stone move in-between). There are horses for course and spending undue time attempting a direct move to an organisation that isn’t a natural fit is of no use to anyone and will generally only serve to dishearten you.
  • You are in the right practice area; I often have discussions with lawyers wanting to move in house from ‘tricky’ practice areas who wonder why they are struggling. Employment and antitrust for example are areas where in house lawyers are employed (unlike say family law), however, they make up such a small percentage of total in house hires that transitioning often proves challenging. By way of contrast the most straightforward practice areas to leverage a move are: corporate, commercial IP/IT and banking/finance.
  • You have the right attitude and experience; Some lawyers just aren’t suited to life in house; often it involves far less support and structure than within a law firm. It is in many cases a very different way of applying your knowledge and working. A secondment is a great way to test the water and see if it is right for you, further, this will help you gain ground on other prospective candidates by showing you have pertinent experience when you interview. It is also possible that you could be kept on following your secondment and offered a permanent position.

When you are ready to move you have tools at your disposal:

  • Your peer network, other lawyers you know are great sources of information, utilise them. If you know a law firm partner that you trust it is worthwhile confiding in them, in many cases they will offer to help. Law firm partners are often the first people outside of a company to know where there is a hiring need. As an associate moving in house your firm shouldn’t be too unhappy, yes, they may be losing a superstar associate but they will also be cementing or developing a relationship that could result in business for them.
  • Your reputation in the market; you might not think you have enough experience to have a reputation yet, but the legal world is a small and integrated one. Good quality work in combination with a positive attitude will filter through the law firm partnership and cross over to clients that you work with and beyond. You can raise your profile further by publishing articles and speaking on panels, all things that will expose you to the prospect of something good happening.
  • Your recruiter network; lawyers generally don’t speak to recruiters unless they need them, I understand why, the bulk of the market is awash with people I certainly wouldn’t want to keep in touch with unless I absolutely had to. Talk to your network, ask them who they recommend, it is worth having one or two connected and knowledgeable recruiters in amongst your contacts and meeting up for a coffee periodically. Looking for a new role is in many cases a slow burn, keep on a recruiters’ radar as interesting opportunities will crop up when you least expect them.
  • The interim option; If you are at your wits end with private practice or feel you will be locked out of a career in house if you don’t move now, it might be worth exploring interim solutions. I know of several senior associates who have left practice and a ‘secure’ law firm job to take on a ‘risky’ interim mandate only to move on and develop successful careers in house. Look at the larger players in the market by way of a starting point, LOD, Axiom and Peerpoint.

Moving away from the comfort of a law firm is never easy but with the right mix of pragmatism and dedication fantastic opportunities can open up for you.


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