Career Advice Q&A

Advice from alumni who’ve been there

Navigating a law career can raise lots of questions—how to climb the ranks, how to transition to a different field, even how to return to work after an extended leave. This monthly feature offers advice from Northwestern Law alumslegal recruiters, career coaches, and managing partners—who have the expertise to weigh in on all your pressing concerns. 

Q: I’m interested in transitioning from my associate job at a firm to an in-house position. Any tips for making that transition, and how to stand out from other candidates looking to make the same change? 

“My biggest piece of advice is that you should not rush this transition. Lawyers leave law firm practice for the idealized ‘in-house life’ and they are not prepared for the lack of mentoring or growth. As an in-house lawyer, you become an ‘everything lawyer’ and advise regarding all legal needs and not simply previous law firm expertise.  That said, the best way to get an in-house role is to develop a strong relationship with a client that is in a growth mode and may need someone with your skill set in the very near future. This relationship allows the client to get to know your character and your skills and they will know that you’ll be a fit before you even commence employment with the company. If there are clients that interest you, make a point to get to know their industries well and to provide additional guidance that will demonstrate your potential in-house value to that company. If you want a chance to go work for a client that you already work for at your current firm, exhibit a great attitude. Great things happen when you don't expect them to—consider your daily legal advice as a very long interview process, so each interaction matters.” —Alanna Darling (JD ’00), Partner, Massari & Darling LLC 

“In-house skills are extremely different from law firm skills. Before you make the jump, do research by asking those in-house — even clients if you feel comfortable enough with them —what their transition was like and how in-house is different than private practice. This will help you develop the vocabulary you'll need to show in-house legal departments and clients you understand their world.  While pedigree and experience matters in-house, if you can show during the interview process that you understand that the challenges and expectations of in-house attorneys are different, companies will be more inclined to hire you over others with a similar pedigree. You can even attend a few CLE's geared toward in-house attorneys to try to understand their roles better and expand your network of people that might hire you.” —Leila Hock (JD ’07), Career Coach and Founder, Alignment Coaching 

“If you develop a good professional network, these transitions will happen more naturally. Find someone who transitioned in-house and ask questions: How did you do it? What was difficult about it? What was surprising? What are the myths about in-house life? Do people actually work less? What do you mean when you say ‘I’m more of a business advisor?’ Now that you are in house, what law firms do you appreciate more? All of this is important because it’s the knowledge that will make you stand out in the interview process. When an interviewer asks: ‘What makes you want to move in-house?’ You can say, ‘Oh well I’ve been asking people about this and I’ve learned that being in-house you are really a business advisor, and that’s what I want to be.’ That is a really thoughtful answer and one that only someone who has done his research can give.Sang Kim (JD ’95), Managing Partner – Northern California, DLA Piper 

“Depending on practice area, transactional attorneys can make a switch to in-house positions around their third year of practice (litigators are typically closer to 8 years). The best way to make that move is to go to a client. Not only does a client know your abilities, but you know more about them than you do a company you’ve never worked with, and that can prevent future job dissatisfaction. Also, your current firm is likely to support a move to one of its clients because it makes the client happy and bodes well for a continued relationship with the firm. In this case, you’ll want to get as much client contact as possible. By responding in a timely manner to their inquiries, providing top-notch work product, and suggesting work-arounds when confronting an issue, you’ll show them that you are valuable to their team. Keep in mind, you don’t want to look like you’re going behind your current employer’s back, so it’s best to look into the firm history to see if they’ve sent associates to clients before and ask a senior attorney with whom you have a good relationship whether they support such a career move.” —Liz Hudson (JD ’04), Founder and Managing Principal, Alignment Recruiting 

“Networking is a key ingredient in any career ‘shift.’ It's often helpful to get in touch with others who have made that transition. As far as standing out, researching the company or industry and asking questions about what they need or expect will show that you are motivated to help their company. In-house attorneys have to delicately balance law and business while dealing with many individuals who don't understand the role of law in business, so conveying that you can address that balance, be a true partner in the relationship, and communicate effectively will help you stand out as a stellar candidate for the job.” —Carin Riekes Parcel (JD ’03), Managing Director, Canopy Advisory Group 

“The first question to address is why do you want to make this transition? Gone are the days when in-house attorneys don’t have to work very hard, so make no mistake about the level of commitment it takes. Also, it’s very important if you go in-house that you go at the right level. If you’ve only practiced for a year or two, it’s unlikely you’ll get a position in-house that will give you much authority. This is especially true if you are going to a large company – here in Seattle we have companies like Amazon and Microsoft, and they have a lot of lawyers. You don’t want to get cubby-holed into a position where you can’t spread your wings, so make sure you have enough substantive knowledge. If you are looking to move in-house and also move up to eventually become general counsel or another high-level in-house position, I recommend that you not go until you have a minimum of four years’ experience at a law firm. You should be able to handle a matter on your own without help. If you’re a corporate attorney, this means you can handle a transaction on your own from open to close. The real value you have as in-house counsel is the ability to evaluate what outside counsel is doing, so you want to have enough experience to evaluate their strategy. Make sure that you’ve become an exceptional lawyer before you pull the trigger. Once you go in-house, you will not get the same training you receive at a firm.” —Saul Gamoran (JD ’84), President, Gamoran Legal Consulting