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Q: I am an associate general counsel in a large company that has 10 lawyers in its legal department. I want to become a general counsel in the next few years, but think the odds of that happening here are slim, as there are three lawyers in the department who are senior to me and rank higher on the organization chart. Any suggestions as to how I can position myself to become a general counsel?

A: Your use of the words "position myself" are emblematic of someone who has good strategic insight, which should serve you well. There are many lawyers who get frustrated when they cannot make the jump to a general counsel position, despite having seemingly strong credentials. Most of those lawyers did not prepare for that progression and skipped some important steps, which I’ll outline for you.

First, you should try to get broad substantive experience, as this is typically key for most GC positions and will be quite important if you want to cast your net wide and include companies outside of your current industry. Corporate and securities are two mainstays, as is Sarbanes-Oxley. Getting exposure to litigation, IP and governance issues are also important.

This expansion is not likely to happen by chance – the odds are good that you will have to seek out this work and may even have to ask your general counsel to give you the opportunity to get involved in these other areas. If you have to ask, you should make it clear that you are willing to spend extra time (of your own) to get up to speed and feel that broadening your skills will make you a better contributor for the company.

Second, many GC searches ultimately turn on hiring the lawyer who has the best business skills and judgment. You should thus focus on sharpening those skills, which can be done by really delving into the business of your current employer.

For example, suppose you are managing a big piece of products liability litigation. You surely could do a strong job by reviewing the documents in question and mapping out a sound litigation plan. You could do an even better job, though, and could prepare yourself for that future GC spot, by digging deeper and reading the original R&D plans, analyzing the marketing plans and sales data and spending time with senior executives who can provide a lot of detail as to where the product fits in your company’s long range plans. Doing that research will aid you in your current case and learning to synthesize all those elements will help you greatly in the future.

Finally, it is essential that you increase your profile and make sure your network is in place. Networking opportunities for in-house lawyers exist within most industries and in organizations such as the Association of Corporate Counsel (and local chapters, such as DELVACCA). Speaking and writing opportunities are not just the province of private practice attorneys – in-house lawyers are often sought for their valued insight. An important sector that you should not forsake in building your profile is the inside of your company, too.

Many in-house attorneys fall into the trap of just interacting with other departmental lawyers and the group of businesspersons with whom they are most often involved. You should make it a point to get to know others in the company, including those who are one and two levels below executive row. Things change quickly today in companies, and those junior-level vice presidents and senior directors very well may be in positions of influence in the next few years (no matter where they may be) and could be sitting across the desk from you when you are under consideration for a GC position.

Q: I often hear partners who make a lateral move claim that their decision was based on the new firm providing a "better platform." Just what does that mean?

A: The short answer is that this means the partner thinks that the new firm is of a type that better supports his practice. For instance, the partner may have historically represented local companies that drew on his firm’s wealth of contacts and relationships in the region. A few of those companies, perhaps due to acquisitions, may now have a significant need for counseling on international issues and the partner, and his firm, may not be able to do that work. In order for him to keep those clients and grow the practice, a move to a firm that has a strong international practice, and perhaps overseas offices, may be the type of "platform" he, and his clients, need.

The longer answer is that quite a few factors underlie the platform issue. One, for instance, centers on the type of firm and whether the partner thinks it is well positioned for the future, which very well may cut both ways. Some partners may feel that mega firms will emerge as the long term winners, while others in those type of firms may seek a smaller firm, since they may think it will be impossible to sustain continued growth and an unrelenting pressure to increase profits.

A second factor is the confidence that the partner has in a firm’s current and projected future management – is he operating pursuant to a sound, strategic plan and can he execute against it?

A third issue is whether the partner’s clients fit the firm – are they too small or too big? Is the rate that the partner can charge too low to meet the firm’s profit targets or, on the flip side, could the partner get a higher rate if he were in a different firm?

A fourth issue may turn on support, or lack thereof. For instance, did the partner’s old firm have the depth and quality of lawyers he needed to staff his last matter? Which firm better funds business development efforts and has the administrative and professional support (such as a marketing department) that can make the difference in landing a client?

Finally, while this is rarely discussed, the reality is the new firm may also provide a "better platform" for the partner to make money. In one case, this can happen if all, or most, of the promised benefits occur, as the partner’s practice should grow, which normally should mean better pay. In another case, though, the move itself may trigger higher compensation, even if the size of the practice remains constant, as the variances among firms can be significant. I have seen some such moves result in bumps up that are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially if the partner’s practice is one that a firm covets.

Q: I am an associate in a small to midsize firm. I was recently approached about becoming a "staff attorney" in a major law firm and really don’t know much about this type of position and what it may mean for my career. This seems attractive – more money and fewer hours – what do you think?

A: This is a rapidly evolving area in which there are no simple answers or guidelines. For example, this started as a track for lawyers who were brought in to help staff specific types of litigation that were likely to continue for at least two to three years. There has been recent expansion beyond targeted litigation and into other practice areas, such as corporate.

An educated guess is that you will eventually see a staff attorney track in major firms that embraces quite a few substantive disciplines and will have highly defined rules, career paths, and responsibilities. Until that day arrives, it is important you look deep inside yourself, as to what is important in your career and life, and ask quite a few questions before you make the leap. For instance, how important is it to you that you do challenging, sophisticated work?

While some firms may provide staff attorneys with good work, others may save that for their associates, which may leave you knee deep in document reviews in conjunction with discovery or due diligence. How much do you dread attending firm functions and spending endless time in the office so that you can hit your hours target?

As the staff attorney spot almost assuredly has no path to partnership, there will be no need to attend all of those functions and to do all of the intangible things that firms value in future partners, including business development pressures. How pivotal is compensation in your life? In the short term, you are likely to do better. I have seen some midlevels who have jumped from smaller firms and have had salary bumps as high as $20,000 or $25,000. In the long term, assuming you are willing to devote the time and actually do become partner, you should do better, and probably by a wide margin.

Finally, what is your tolerance for risk? As discussed at the outset, you would be entering a realm in which the rules are now being sorted out. This could mean that you are getting in on the ground floor of a sector which ultimately may provide a wonderful career option for someone who wants to work in a top-flight firm, get good work, solid pay and, perhaps, most importantly, defined hours which provide you with a lot of balance in your life.

Conversely, you may miss handling the most challenging work and could wince (or worse) when you see peers from law school and ultimately, those much junior than you, try those cases or close those deals in which you played a small, supporting role. You also may be highly expendable in the event of a downturn in work, unlike the colleague who puts in the time and is rising through the ranks, especially if that decision day happens to occur when and if that former peer is a partner with a strong practice, as she will be protected. Only you can determine how to answer these questions and the relative weight that each should be afforded. Good luck.

FRANK MICHAEL D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at [email protected].

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