You’ve got your law degree. But that doesn’t mean your education is over – especially if you envision yourself someday working as an in-house or corporate attorney.
With a handful of exceptions, rarely do new law graduates waltz into a general counsel job. Making careful decisions now, however, could create an opportunity to move from a law firm to a corporate law position.
The right skills
Kris Altice, general counsel for Shiel Sexton, said that to be a good in-house attorney, you need to be able to answer a variety of questions, and quickly.
“I have people walk in my office, and they need an answer in two seconds,” she said. Unlike working for a law firm, where an attorney may be able to tell a client, “I’ll get back to you,” Altice doesn’t have that option.
The broad knowledge that enables her to handle a variety of legal issues comes with experience. And that’s why most companies prefer to hire an attorney who has worked at least a few years with a law firm. Altice said that new lawyers learn a lot about analytical skills and basic tasks like writing a good memo in the first few years working for a firm.
Jason Schiesser, senior attorney in legal operations for Simon Property Group, agreed that law firm work is a good way to learn the skills that an in-house attorney will need.
“Learn as much as you can from the partners in your firm, both in terms of substantive legal work and client service,” he said. “Companies are just not good training grounds for new lawyers.”
Schiesser said transactional attorneys tend to have an advantage in transitioning to in-house positions, most of which involve contracts and commercial issues.
When Altice was a business litigator for Ice Miller, she worked on many cases involving mortgages, construction contracts and employment contracts.
“I wasn’t drafting a lot of contracts, but I sure was arguing what was good and bad about them,” she said. That experience has helped her in creating contracts at Shiel Sexton.
Amberly Martin is vice president, general counsel and risk manager/chief privacy officer for Redcats USA, an online and catalogue retailer that encompasses many brands. She said that her background working in retail and accounting probably helped her land the legal job at Redcats.
Martin was working in the Redcats tax department in 2001 and attending law school in the evenings. When she graduated in 2002, she said the company decided to form a legal department.
“They put me in charge right out of law school,” she said. But she already had eight years of financial experience.
“One of the main objectives in my role of general counsel is to efficiently manage risk and resources. In doing so, your decisions must make sense to the business and finance side,” she said. “My tax and accounting experience gave me the skills to understand the financial risks and be in a position to explain the legal and financial impact of a recommendation.”
Altice wishes she had some background in accounting or finance so that when she’s reading a balance sheet, she could understand what she’s seeing and how it’s relevant. But she said the accountants at Shiel Sexton help her interpret financial information – even if they do make fun of her big-button calculator.
Martin said the Redcats legal team must be accessible to business customers and executives around the clock. She says an in-house attorney should be flexible, willing to work long hours, and stay calm in the face of unexpected events, like a recent travel delay she experienced.
“I was working on a project in Miami a few months ago, and I thought we were in a good position and I could come home. I got to the airport and was 20 minutes from boarding my flight when I got a call that I had to go back to the project in Miami. At that point, I had already checked my luggage, so I had to leave the airport without it and hoped that I would meet my luggage back in Indianapolis whenever I could get back,” she said. “That was certainly a unique situation, but you never know what might happen.”
Altice said her job demands patience and sincerity – she can’t be dismissive of questions or bothered by the multiple requests she handles each day. She also said that a good corporate attorney does not back down from uncomfortable situations.
“You can’t be a ‘yes’ man, you have to be able to stand up to people,” she said. “You have to know when to stand on a table and beat your chest and say, you can’t do this, this is wrong.”
Naima Stevenson, director of legal affairs and assistant general counsel for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, explained that character is important for a general counsel, too.
“You need to have a good reputation, exceptional judgment and essentially have the ability to elicit the confidence of those who are on the receiving end of your legal advice and counsel,” she said.
How it’s different
Schiesser said the most obvious difference between working for a firm and working as an in-house attorney is that in-house attorneys don’t log billable hours. And Schiesser appreciates having the inside knowledge that enables him to help clients in a different way.
“As an in-house attorney, you are viewed as a valued team member instead of a hired gun like an outside counsel is. You are more likely to be consulted with in advance because that consultation isn’t going to cost the business person any money,” he said. “Therefore, you function as more of a business partner with your clients and are more involved in the decision-making process of the organization.”
In-house opportunities are not easy to come by, because many companies have small legal teams. But making connections in the legal community may be one way to transition to such a role, and that means taking the time to participate in networking opportunities.
“It pays off dividends later,” Altice said. “I think finding time to do that is critical.”•