Q: As a career in house lawyer, am I at a market disadvantage without any law firm experience? How do I effectively address this weakness?
A: In today’s legal environment, starting your legal career as an in house lawyer as opposed to law firm associate is not the kiss of death that it might have been in years past. In fact, it is becoming a more common choice among lawyers as companies increase their newbie hiring. In addition, for some employers, the law firm background holds decreasing importance as candidates mature and experience increases. So, generally speaking the legal community is becoming more socialized to this hiring profile.
With this said, not all employers are as flexible with their hiring criteria. Traditionalists exist who espouse to the philosophy that the best-trained lawyers cut their teeth in a law firm environment. Consequently, candidates lacking firm training raise questions…and eyebrows as to why they did not choose the traditional law firm route out of the gate. Below are a few of questions and potential concerns:
- Were the candidate’s law school grades subpar?
- Is the candidate not presentable in person?
- Was s/he rejected by every firm they applied to?
- Is the candidate damaged goods?
- Is there something wrong with the candidate?
- Does the candidate have less attractive experience?
Any sort of deviation from the norm raises questions – it’s human nature. But that doesn’t have to be the death of your candidacy. The key here is the quality of your experience and articulating why you are at a competitive advantage by having the experience you do. In other words: Your Sell.
Today’s corporate employers want lawyers who possess business acumen, understand the culture of a company and can navigate those waters effectively. Dealing with executives, internal clients, HR, managing people and possessing a value system that is in the company’s best interest. You grew up in this world. It’s ingrained in your practice, your approach and your values. Lawyers coming straight from law firms did not. In house lawyers…with less time in house cannot claim your unique profile either. And what about your experience? Be specific about the breadth and depth you have acquired since joining the company. What does it offer another employer? Why is it compelling? Why is it unique?
Make. Your. Case.
If you were considering a move to a law firm, it will be a tougher hill to climb – as law firms are still traditionalists and will more readily hold your unconventional choice against you. The hurdles get lower if you are more senior traveling from a branded company and might be able to bring the company as a client or have some niche skill-set that the firm needs. But even if you succeed, you’ll likely want to move back in house in one to two years. So consider this option carefully.
The legal industry is changing and as a result, the market is becoming more tolerant of diverse career backgrounds. There is simply no other choice. Yours is a profile that reflects this diversity. Don’t be bound by what others tell you your value is or isn’t based on optics. Be clear about your value and take charge of your message…with conviction. And you’ll place yourself in a position to turn what you perceive as a career weakness into one of the greatest strengths of them all.
Julie Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.