You’ve always dreamt of the bright lights, great perks and strong salaries of a tech or pharma company? But you’re currently working in private practice in litigation or conveyancing…so how do you make the transition from private practice to in-house?
Here, Bernardo Pina, Partner with Barden Dublin, and expert in legal careers, shares some key advice on how to secure that sought after in-house commercial role.
There are many reasons why someone would choose to make the move into in-house, and away from private practice, including some or all of the following benefits:
Better work-life balance:
While some law firms are making strides to compete in a market increasingly demanding flexibility, it’s no question that in-house roles will often offer less hours, more control over your time and more flexi arrangements.
Working closer with the business:
Law firms are often very collegiate environments between peers, however many lawyers feel the desire to be more involved in the business and operations of one particular client, follow matters from beginning to end and have a holistic view of what is going on in a company.
While the basic salary in the top tier practices is typically excellent, and sometimes higher than in-house, many of the benefits offered in-house are often more comprehensive and attractive.
The challenge is that most in-house legal roles have a stronger commercial and/or corporate slant than some lawyers are exposed to within their area of practice in a law firm. This is a heavily contested market, with exceptionally strong candidates often looking to move in-house from a top tier commercial law firm with highly specialised departments covering the relevant industry (tech, pharma, energy, etc). Not to mention those candidates who are already in-house, who typically will have an advantage over most candidates coming from private practice. Generally, those looking to move from smaller firms, or even those in larger firms who are not working on corporate/commercial matters, often need relevant industry experience and a little bit of luck to secure that role!
So, let’s look at how this might play out for two different candidates…
What’s the role?
A leading pharma company is looking for a Legal Counsel responsible for drafting and negotiating complex commercial agreements (supply, distribution, manufacturing, service level, software license, software maintenance and services, etc.). The role might also include some regulatory compliance, corporate governance, IP matters, managing litigation. The ideal candidate should have strong legal commercial experience, to include experience negotiating and drafting agreements and general business acumen.
Mary trained and qualified into a top 5 law firm in Ireland, where she specialised in life sciences and represents several pharmaceutical and medical devices companies, clinical research organisations, and other healthcare companies. She has reviewed and negotiated a multitude of contracts in the industry and he also has wide knowledge of healthcare regulations. Mary is a great candidate for the role.
John is a general practice Solicitor. He trained and qualified in a small law firm, specialising in conveyancing, litigation, probate and family law. John has mostly represented individuals. Despite John’s great skills and experience performing in a busy and pressurised environment, he will not be viewed as an ideal candidate for the role. John needs to broaden his expertise to at least include commercial contracts or corporate transactions for his experience to be seen as more transferable. To get that kind of exposure, John will very likely first need to change jobs.
Simon is a Tax Solicitor in a top tier practice, where he also trained. During his traineeship, he did rotations in the Corporate, Commercial Litigation, Finance & Capital Markets and finally in the Tax department. Simon mainly represents large indigenous or multinational companies and he acts as the first point of contact between the firm and some of these clients. Simon might have a few things going his way but he might not be quite there yet to be considered for the position.
What steps can John and Simon, and other professionals like them, take to get their dream job?
Let’s start with Simon, as he is likely further along his journey vis a vis his chances of success when applying to the commercial lawyer role with the pharma company in comparison with John. However, as it stands, Simon might still find that it is hard to compete against people with John’s experience for these positions. The same can be said about other lawyers in areas such as Property or Litigation who, despite being with top tier firms, might sometimes struggle to transition into a commercial in-house role.
Nevertheless, Simon does have elements of corporate and some commercial experience from his traineeship, which he can make sure to highlight in his CV and talk through in an interview. It is also more likely that Simon has good contacts in excellent companies, either through his work with commercial clients or through colleagues he might have worked with who have moved in-house already. Simon (and anyone else for that matter) should explore his own personal network. Additionally, Simon is fortunate enough to be in an environment that might allow him to gain exposure to corporate/commercial matters simply by engaging with his colleagues in other departments and offering to help out. For example, even though the structure of the firm might dictate that he has to pass on certain work to his colleagues in other areas, he might leverage off his good client relationships to do some of the initial work when it first comes in the door (with the knowledge of the lawyers in the relevant areas of course).
John, on the other hand, is in a less advantageous position and will likely need to put more thought into planning his career path and take incremental steps to get where he wants.
Getting your foot in the door…
One of the best ways to secure a commercial in-house legal counsel role is to just move in-house to start with. Unfortunately, many of the roles that employ a wider range of candidates are often not seen as the most attractive roles. However, the time spent in an in-house environment will help you develop the necessary skills and expertise, resulting in your ability to apply for more suitable and relevant positions in time.
For example, a commonly available in-house role is in debt recovery for banks or mortgage servicers, such as when loan books are sold to vulture funds. In this scenario, a solicitor is needed to work on the debt recovery plan for the fund.
While this is an area where there is no shortage of experience, companies often find it difficult to find solicitors to work on such matters. For those with general practice experience looking to secure in-house roles, this can be an excellent way to get your foot in the door and potentially broaden your experience.
Another example of a type of role that does not get the attention of the majority of candidates in the market, are fixed term contracts. Competition is often not as intense for these positions and therefore companies tend to be more flexible on their requirements. It is entirely understandable that people have to weigh up job security and their personal circumstances vs investing in a role that might be career changing but which has the risk of not progressing past its term. If you can allow yourself to take that leap, you will often find that such a contract role can set your career up for success and sometimes change its course. It will make your CV more attractive in the market and potentially open new doors, either internally or externally, even if the role does not live on in its original form past its term.
This might be just your first step on the ladder towards a more attractive role but it might be a step you have to take in order to get there!
Once you have secured your first in-house role, it’s important to continue seeking and securing relevant experience to help you transition to your dream role. Keep an eye on the market and the jobs that are coming up, to ensure you are tailoring your experience accordingly.
Join relevant networks, stay connected to people in those networks, and ensure you keep up to speed on industry challenges and changes.
Look for industry awards and enter them if you can. This will help you stand out and add substance to your industry expertise.
Contribute to the conversation within the legal area you want to practice in. This could involve PR or blog writing. Develop your profile, and share those updates on social media. This will help raise your reputation and build your profile within the legal industry.
But most importantly, make sure you are putting your hand up to work on projects and matters outside the strict scope of your role. Even if you are working In-house on distressed assets, for example, you might very well have a higher chance of expanding your experience onto some commercial, corporate and/or regulatory matters. It’s that type of step by step and proactive attitude that might lead you to where you want to take your career.
Building Your Team?
Bernardo Pina is a Partner with Barden Dublin and is an expert in legal careers. Bernardo is the go to person when it comes to recruitment and building legal teams in Dublin and the wider Leinster region.
Reach out to Bernardo to see how he, and his team, can help you build and retain truly world class teams.