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Finding the path to an in-house career

The most common question I hear from junior lawyers is “what can I do to make the transition into an in-house role?”

Unfortunately, the answer is rarely a simple one. In fact, it is often the dreaded “it depends” response.

Much of it will depend on your educational background and your experiences. The traditional approach was to spend four or five years as an associate at a law firm and then make the shift to in-house practice. However, my experience shows this doesn’t always have to be the case. In fact, some are now going in-house immediately after articling. It depends.

The key is knowing what makes you different from others and what value you can add to your potential employer. What is your competitive advantage?

In my specific case, landing my position as general counsel at Navistar Canada was a case in point. My academic background in labour relations and human resources (a BA in labour studies and a master’s of industrial relations), along with my experience as a labour relations consultant at Ontario Power Generation and articling and working for two years as a junior associate at boutique labour and employment law firms, made me an attractive hire for a company for whom HR and labour relations issues represented a large proportion of their work.

Having previously performed work for Navistar as an articling student and a junior associate, I also knew the contracts and the players on both sides of the table. My knowledge of corporate/commercial, contracts, dealer operations, corporate governance, etc., developed thereafter. HR and labour relations were my comparative advantage and my ticket for getting my foot in the door.

There are other important considerations as well. Once you land an in-house position, you will either find yourself as a subject matter expert within a large in-house department or as a jack-of-all trades as the only legal officer, or with multiple areas of responsibilities within a small- or mid-size in-house department. At that point, the key will be to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.

You can strengthen your areas of weakness by attending seminars provided by law firms, legal associations, and trade groups. Expand and grow beyond your comfort point. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions and volunteer to assist with projects that expand your legal knowledge and your understanding of your company’s business and industry.

Ask for help from your external legal counsel when you don’t understand something. They will often be glad to assist in guiding you through documents, providing you with advice, and getting you up to speed on the basics, often at minimal charge or no cost. If you are open to learning and continuously improving, your level of knowledge and experience will expand quickly.   

In summary, if your future goal is to become a successful in-house lawyer, in my opinion there are several important steps you can take:

• During law school, take business courses as electives, if possible. At the end of the day, an in-house counsel is both a lawyer and a member of the business team.

• Consider looking at the option of articling in-house. Yes, the prospects of securing a job upon graduation may be harder than through a formal law firm articling placement, but if that is where you want to be and can secure a good placement, it may accelerate meeting your career objectives.

• Once you identify some areas of interest, become an expert in one or two of these areas of the law.

• Network, network, and network with other in-house counsel and legal headhunters. I would also recommend attending events hosted by associations like the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel.

• This one is tricky, but if you start off in private practice, make it known to your law firm partners and mentors that you would welcome a transition in-house. While this will obviously affect your future working at the firm you are in, many firms actively support having junior and mid-level associates transition in-house as it is seen as a way of preserving their relationship with the corporate client and you as their contact.

• When looking for an opportunity, take a chance applying for jobs even if they seem like a stretch or if they require certain experience that you do not have. It is always valuable to practice interviewing and, more importantly, you may not get the role you apply for, but will then be on the radar of the recruiter who may consider you for another future role or opening.

• Make the change for the right reasons. I hear it too often that people seek to move in-house for work-life balance. That may not always be true. Do your homework on the organization you are applying to, as in some cases you may find yourself working as long as you did in private practice (although of course without billable hours).

In conclusion, there are no set and fast rules as to what you can and should do to secure that dream in-house job. My opinion is based on my experiences, which in many ways are atypical of the average lawyer as I was able to get into the in-house practice relatively early in my career. Nevertheless, where there is a will there is a way. You can’t succeed if you don’t try.


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