Career Navigation: In-House Counsel and Law Firm Reentry

In the past, once a lawyer went in-house, there was virtually no going back. That is no longer the case. Law firm employers realize that in-house attorneys often have credentials, sophistication, leadership, practice experience and demanding work schedules that are desirable to the law firm practice. Corporate counsels also often bring valuable connections and business insight supporting the law firm client development initiatives. Although there might be an attraction by law firms to hire in-house lawyers, you still need to prepare so you land in the right spot for your next career step. Here are a few strategies to assist your preparation in law firm re-entry. 

No. 1 – Identify prospective employer’s current needs in the marketplace.

Which firms have or are seeking to grow a practice area in the industry in which you have been working? 

No. 2 – Working your network.

Connect with former law firm colleagues, mentors and classmates. Some of these people may be in positions or have connections at the firms you identified as potentials.

Note: One more reason why you want to avoid burning bridges as you make career transitions and progressions. 

No. 3 – Commitment to traditional practice.

Be prepared to explain why you have an interest in a law firm environment again. This might include discussing how you have seen both sides and know that your next career step is in a law firm to use the industry expertise and the transferable skills you have honed. You may also discuss a more mature attitude and appreciation for the law firm practice in regard to relative security, daily interactions with other lawyers, interesting and sophisticated work with a variety of clients, training opportunities, support and use of established business connections. 

No. 4 – Explain transitions.

It is often useful to know for yourself and be able to explain why you went in-house in the first place with details such as, what you were hoping to gain, that you achieved it and you are ready for this next step.

Note: Frequently a myth yet, hidden question with a prospective employer is wondering whether you left private practice for an in-house role because you couldn’t “cut it” in the law firm environment. For example, you wanted less hours, didn’t want to work so hard, couldn’t establish client relationships or were not technically sound in your legal skill.

No.5 – Transferable skills.

Your in-house experience has given you transferable and value-added skills. Describe how you have honed skills, such as multitasking, working with urgency, taking risks to support a business initiative, which demonstrates business acumen. In addition to your legal abilities, you understand organizational dynamics and have deep industry knowledge and connections. Be prepared to discuss how your skill, experience and perspective can benefit the law firm and its clients. 

No. 6 – Better-rounded.

Show how you are a better-rounded lawyer due to meeting the varied legal requirements of a business enterprise in a specific industry. Be prepared to showcase how your acquired knowledge and abilities, such as hands-on running of deals, negotiating and documenting agreements, advising a business on navigating risks to accomplish an initiative in a specific industry can benefit the law firm and its clients.

Note: There is often a concern that a lawyer in a small or start-up company receives little to no training during their tenure in-house, especially if one is a junior lawyer while in-house. 

No. 7 – Show you are prepared to take action.

Craft an effective business development plan. Prospective law firm employers often expect a more seasoned lawyer to grow a client base in relatively short order. This plan would include potential opportunities to bring in work from your current and past in-house organizations where you worked, as well as other like-industry organizations where you can leverage your knowledge, expertise and connections. Your plan would also include your former business colleagues who have moved to other organizations. 

No. 8 – Creative options.

Be willing to demonstrate flexibility in the transitional relationship in regard to title, department, practice area and compensation. A short-term compromise can yield a long-term gain for both parties. 

Although a stint in-house no longer precludes law firm re-entry, it can provide additional challenges. Be prepared by keeping these considerations in mind as you plan your next career move and you will increase your effectiveness in securing the position you want.