From a Law Firm to In-House: A Different Game, But A Winnable One

Successfully landing a coveted in-house job from a law firm is no small feat. But make no mistake, the game isn’t over yet. Attorneys transitioning straight from a law firm to the in-house arena commonly encounter a different array of expectations, stakeholders, and deliverables that can be hard to navigate if they’re unprepared. While there isn’t a readily accessible playbook that applies to every situation, there are some best practices for a new corporate attorney that can make the difference between excelling and floundering.

This piece largely deals with tactics to succeed in-house, but relies, in part, on our observation that value can be measured a bit differently in-house than in private practice. While many law firms are admirably making strides to broaden their criteria for assessing attorney performance, in-house lawyers can’t rely on commonplace metrics for law firm excellence—annual billables or business origination numbers—as they simply don’t translate. To be sure, each corporate legal department is unique, but we’ve seen consistently that success in that arena turns on a broad mix of factors that include providing sound advice, delivering quality work product, partnering strategically with the business, balancing risk mitigation with commercial opportunities, managing relationships, and driving profitability and/or growth for the business in measurable ways. These considerations, in many respects, are not unfamiliar to a successful law firm attorney, but they are particularly relevant to the in-house attorney.

The good news is that there are some thoughtful tactics that can position you to thrive as an in-house attorney. Eight best practices follow below:

1. Align on Expectations: Start writing your annual review from day one. This effort begins with understanding the objectives behind your role. Sit down with your boss and key stakeholders from the outset and get a sharp understanding of how they define exceptional performance. The more descriptive and tailored, the better. Relatedly, asking for examples of top-tier deliverables can be tremendously helpful in shaping your own work. Revisit these objectives and examples often and continually assess your efforts against them. This helps avoid end-of-the-year surprises and keeps you laser-focused on adding the most value.

2. Style Matters: There is no correlation between quality advice and length, especially as an in-house attorney. As the truism goes, if you can accurately convey it or write it in fewer words, do so. Clarity and organization are equally important. Bullets and short paragraphs can signal an ability to seamlessly reduce legal complexity to its essential parts. For many internal business clients, this is a hallmark of effective in-house lawyering.

3. Provide a Perspective: Lean into having a point of view that can inform decision-making. In-house attorneys advise the Business, a group of stakeholders that are typically not legally trained. So, merely identifying legal issues without a recommendation or actionable framework, can be seen as useless as writing a legal treatise without a purpose. A perspective, without more, doesn’t go far. Conversely, in-house advice is always valued when it balances risk with commercial realities and includes actionable next steps. For instance, providing recommendations across a risk spectrum and/or finding an appropriate way to get to a “yes” on a given matter can promote your brand as a pragmatic attorney. Stated differently, it can signal partnership with the Business versus reflexive opposition.

4. Understand the Core Business: Be knowledgeable about your lane in legal, the business, and industry. At bottom, you must understand the legal issues relevant to your role. For instance, if you’re a transactional attorney this might involve reviewing relevant contract templates, understanding key negotiating terms and fallback positions, and aligning on processes and playbooks. It’s equally important to put those learnings in a larger commercial context by understanding the business and industry dynamics. This can translate to reviewing relevant SEC filings, following notable news developments, gaining a command of terms of art, analyzing the org chart and corporate structure, and sitting down with the business to get underneath their goals and challenges.

5. Manage Key Stakeholders: Relationships will always matter, so don’t be afraid to build and nurture them, proactively. First, they can give you an insight on how to excel from a trusted perspective. Second, even the strongest metrics rely on some element of qualitative human interpretation. Relationships can impact what those numbers mean or don’t mean. Third, relationships can not only help open doors but also turn a mentor into an advocate and ultimately into a champion for your career. So, find time and creative ways to connect with your colleagues and cross-functional stakeholders that may impact your trajectory. We appreciate this can be a more complex endeavor for many. But whenever possible, explore building earnest connections, e.g., over one-on-one meetings, lunches/coffees, video/phone calls, shared interests, etc. This is a continual process, so wash and repeat often.

6. Be Flexible: Recognize that many legal departments don’t have the size to allow for absolute specialization. So, it’s important to show some flexibility and demonstrate a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude to assist where it makes sense. Lean into legally adjacent areas. Consider opportunities to take on additional work that may be underserved or overlooked but may offer real value to the legal team or business.

7. Be Coachable: The best players tend to be the most coachable. Adapting to constructive feedback from senior management, peers, and direct reports is key to sharpening your craft.

8. Quantify Your Value: Whenever possible, search for ways to put metrics around your value. The numbers matter. Legal departments are increasingly under the purview of GCs and legal operations teams that proactively seek to measure and quantify impact. Some areas to consider are: (1) contract life-cycle times, (2) adherence to preferred contractual provisions, (3) litigation recovery amounts, (4) favorable settlement values, (5) outside counsel spend optimization, (6) savings tied to risk management initiatives, etc. To the extent you can tie your work to the corporation’s growth targets or profitability, even better.

The list above is not meant to be exhaustive, but it should be enough to get you an early lead in a new and exciting arena.