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Q. I am a litigation partner who is interested in making a move in- house. I have several questions. First, why are there so few in-house litigation positions? I rarely see any listed anywhere. Second, I’d ideally like to move into a general counsel role. Do you have any suggestions as to how I can make that jump?

A. These are popular questions that are on the minds of many of your litigation brethren. As to your first question, a bit of context is important. During my tenure as co-chair of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s law department management committee, a membership survey revealed that slightly more than half of all in-house departments had five or fewer attorneys. One consequence of that reality is that few small departments can afford to have one lawyer who is focused on just litigation management. Rather, it is vital that those departments are populated with lawyers who can cover a broad array of disciplines – versatility reigns. As a result, most litigation management positions can be found in large law departments that can “afford” to have such specialists.

There is another, more overarching reason for the paucity of such positions. Corporate law departments are viewed by most senior management as cost centers, a designation that is not particularly desirable. Chief executive officers thus put pressure on general counsel to skew their hiring toward lawyers who will support revenue producing operations. Despite the protestations that litigators can save a company untold millions of dollars, those arguments normally fall on deaf ears. Companies are heavily influenced by hiring those who can directly help bring dollars in the door. This is only amplified in challenging economic climates such as the one we are enduring at this moment.

With respect to your second question, it is one that often is posed. I have addressed the relative merits of in-house versus private practice in this column, but, because of the frequency in which it arises — and the view of many that in-house life is a panacea for all that ails a law firm lawyer — I will revisit the topic in the next few months.

As to the general prospects of any private practice lawyer becoming a general counsel, a few comments are in order. First, with few exceptions, an existing in-house lawyer, assuming he is qualified for an opening, has an inherent edge over someone in private practice. Countless private practice lawyers have washed out in making the move in-house, as it is a much more challenging transition than most persons realize. HR departments, senior management and general counsel know this, so in-house lawyers who have already made necessary adjustments are a safer risk.

Second, there is a surprising misconception among lawyers, especially in law firms, that a plethora of general counsel openings are available at any moment that are just waiting to be filled. This is hardly the case. Moreover, once a spot opens, the competition is fiercer than prospective brides battling each other for bargain dresses at a Filene’s Basement special sale day.

For example, we received more than 1,000 resumes in a general counsel search and hundreds of other candidates were considered. Typically, corporate and securities lawyers and/or existing general counsel (or other in-house lawyers with significant management experience) are most highly sought for more searches.

Despite those daunting odds, some litigation partners have made the jump directly to a general counsel position. This is quite rare but often occurs if a company is in a highly litigious industry and has some serious lawsuits of its own that are plaguing it. In other cases, a litigator may have developed a strong relationship with a CEO or board member, which has afforded those persons with a unique opportunity to assess the lawyer. In those situations, a lawyer who has demonstrated impeccable judgment can leap over other more traditionally qualified candidates. Absent that special situation, that normally does not happen.

Your best bet is to build on your relationships with senior management members of your clients, especially the smaller ones who do not have in-house lawyers or a general counsel. As these executives see you in action, they hopefully will begin to trust your judgment and will see your general business acumen rise to the fore. It will then be incumbent upon you to let them know that you would be interested in working with them someday.

If you do not have such relationships (and why don’t you?), you should look for jobs in which companies are looking for several skill sets, including, of course, litigation. These normally arise in small to midsized companies and could provide the opening you need. If you are successful in getting such a job, do everything you can (including begging), to get as much non-litigation experience as possible, as this will be crucial for your long-term development.

Finally, I offer one piece of advice. It is the bane of the existence of recruiters to deal with candidates who misstate or try to be crafty in laying out their experience. Once this is discovered, a candidate not only is out of contention for an existing opportunity but is often considered “dead” for future needs. I mention this because this often arises with one particular type of law firm lawyer: the commercial litigator.

I could have retired by now if I had a dollar for every such lawyer who tried to convince me, in a discussion, on a resume or in a letter, that he or she was fully qualified to do general commercial, (i.e., transactional work) in a corporation. The argument that is advanced is because this lawyer litigates contract disputes, has tried a case involving a failed M&A deal or any similar tale with a commercial nexus, he or she knows transactional law and can do that work for a company. In fact, I have listened to quite a few lawyers go even further by suggesting that their experience better equips them to do such work because they have seen such issues from a perspective that no transactional lawyer ever could.

While I admire the creativity that underlies such advocacy, it is entirely misplaced. It doesn’t matter if such a lawyer has litigated 100 such cases or has peerless courtroom skills; nothing matches real world, in the trenches, day-to-day transactional experience. I know, as I made such a jump from private practice litigator to in-house generalist. This was a challenging, complex transition that occurred over many years. Even at my zenith, tried and true partners who specialized in deal work undoubtedly had far superior skills in that realm.

So, all ye commercial litigators take heed: Rein in your bravado. Stress the skills you have developed, your ability to quickly adapt to new situations (for which you should have examples), and the judgment that has fueled your success. You will be much better served by focusing on those attributes rather than overreaching in boldly declaring that you could immediately jump into an in-house transactional position.

FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, 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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