NetApp, one of the companies hosting law students in Silicon Valley.  (Photo credit: Jason Doiy/The Recorder)

For most attorneys now in law departments, the road in-house role weaved through a few years or more at a firm post-grad.

That might not be the case for the next generation of corporate legal leaders.

Over the past few years, a number of Silicon Valley legal departments have started or revamped programs aimed to give law students hands-on experience in-house while they’re still in school, perhaps tempting them to skip the firm altogether.

“The type of work we look at interns to do and the types of careers [available] in-house differ enough from the law firm environment that we thought it made sense to come up with a better way to train students with an interest in the in-house area,” said Steve Harmon, vice president and deputy general counsel at Cisco Systems Inc.

Harmon is on the leadership team for the Institute for the Future Law Practice, a collaborative group of representatives from legal departments, firms, law schools and other legal service providers working to improve the quality of education for law students outside the classroom.

He said that the chances to get in-house work experience while he was in law school were slim, if they existed at all. But as more legal work moves in-house, he said it’s important for students to know about the industry they’ll be entering and about other options outside of firms.

At Cisco, his legal department has had interns for the past four years from the IFLP program, which places participants in various legal roles. After interns go through a three-week boot camp, they’re brought into Cisco for either 10 weeks, for rising 2Ls, or seven months, for rising 3Ls.

The benefit of the seven-months area is that it allows people to take on rotations, so they can practice in different areas and explore where they would ultimately like to take their careers when they graduate,” Harmon said.

According to Harmon, all of Cisco’s seven-month interns have found full-time legal employment on graduation, with some going in-house.

Sometimes efforts to pique the interest of law students involve food and booze too. For the past seven years, data storage company NetApp Inc.’s legal department has hosted an event called “BBQ, Beers and Legal Careers.”

It brings together summer law clerks from a number of Silicon Valley companies, including Cisco and Adobe Systems Inc., as well as law firms, to mingle and explore alternative options. 

“If I try to reflect back on what we did seven years ago, and why we did it seven years ago, I think clearly we wanted to do two things: we wanted to [introduce] young law students to a variety of careers and we wanted to create some community,” said NetApp general counsel Matt Fawcett.

NetApp has done that internally through its own summer program, which Fawcett said started after he joined the company in 2010. He said he wanted to create summer clerkship opportunities at NetApp so that law students could see all the options available to them in a changing legal landscape.

At many law schools, he said, students are still being trained for a future at a firm, while in reality, new career choices are opening up. The lessons learned at law school for a firm career, he said, don’t always align with the skills needed to be a strong in-house lawyer, such as having a strong grasp on business concepts. 

“I think one of the important things is to make it clear for students, to be transparent about what in-house practice is like, because to me it’s not just a different version of working at a law firm,” Fawcett said. “It’s a different practice entirely.”

For those students who want a taste of both firm and law department life, some summer programs are even offering a dual track.

This year, Adobe launched it’s diversity 1L program, which selected two students from underrepresented backgrounds in law to split their summers interning at both Adobe and either Perkins Coie or Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer. Adobe also brings on interns later in law school, part time during the school year and full time in the summer, as part of a longer-running program.

In the newer program, interns start their summer with a law firm, then switch to Adobe’s legal department halfway through, staying in contact with both sides for the entire summer.

It’s an idea thought up and in part brought to life by Lisa Konie, Adobe’s senior director of legal operations. She, like Harmon, said there were few in-house opportunities for students when she was in law school, and she wanted to change that.

Konie also saw the opportunity to increase the pipeline of diverse talent in-house and throughout the legal profession.

That was a goal shared by Google’s legal department, which launched its Legal Summer Institute this year. The four-week program brought law students, full-time 1Ls or part-time 2Ls, from underrepresented groups to Google’s headquarters for a week of career training and legal education sessions, providing a peek at in-house life in tech.

“What we’re really trying to do is introduce more robust pipelines, opening up opportunities and removing barriers to entry for underrepresented students for opportunities across the legal field, whether that’s at a tech company or at a law firm,” said Aerica Banks, a patent policy analyst at Google who co-founded the institute. 

Like Adobe, Google’s institute participants spent time both in-house and at a firm. After a week spent in mentoring and networking sessions at the tech company’s locations throughout the Bay Area, the students spent at least three weeks working at a firm. 

While students didn’t get in-house work experience as part of the program, Banks said they did get an idea of what life at a law department is like, something many may not have seen in the past. 

“I think for many students this was their first exposure to the in-house experience,” Banks said. “Many now see it as an option in their careers.”