Have you ever thought about going in-house? On April 18, 2013, the NYSBA Committee on Lawyers in Transition's presented a panel program, Life as an In-House Lawyer, moderated by Robyn Frank, General Counsel at Great Eastern Energy. The panel consisted of current and former in-house lawyers who shared their personal journeys to in-house positions, offered insights on finding and serving in such positions and provided career tips. This powerful program packs a punch and should help you decide if that is the direction you want to go.
Evan D. Lerner, Esq., Founder of Lerner, Cumbo & Associates (a Manhattan staffing company) started his legal career doing corporate work at large firms and was offered his first in-house position by the firm's client, Nathan's, after he helped privatize the company. Evan's tip: "Get in front of a potential employer and make yourself indispensable." As an in-house lawyer, he became a generalist and enjoyed the continuity of servicing the same people. Evan later entered the staffing industry. "There is a misconception that in-house jobs are more stable than law firm jobs, particularly in the New York market."
Susan Vercheak, Associate General Counsel in Con Ed's Law Department, agreed. She started her career at the New Jersey AG's Office where she was assigned certain clients and had the opportunity to learn a subject area well. Years later, she joined Con Ed where she specializes in utility law and regulatory affairs. Con Ed's legal department has more than 100 lawyers who work in other units specializing in a variety of areas from labor to environmental law. Working for Con Ed is exciting and affords enormous learning opportunities. She enjoys working with engineers who want to solve problems and offer intelligible explanations. The challenge can be figuring out who to contact when issues arise due to Con Ed's large size.
Melissa Chernofsky is Associate General Counsel for Israel Discount Bank of New York. She worked as a litigation associate for several law firms and also clerked for a judge before seeking to transition in 2010. Evan Lerner provided her with her first temp job, which gave her experience that helps in her current role at the bank. Melissa emphasized embracing "the twists and turns" of one's career path. At the bank, there is a small group of attorneys, she is a generalist with some specialization and likes working for one company where daily occurrences provide for constant learning. Since in-house is a cost center, there is a big difference in how the work is done and seen.
Christos Badavas, Esq., Deputy General Counsel at The Harry Fox Agency, Inc., started his career as a commercial litigator handling copyright and trademark cases at a mid-sized law firm where he worked for 6 years. He left the firm to help a friend start a software company that closed two years later. While contemplating career options, he continued to play soccer and music (which he studied as an undergraduate). Christos' tip: "Never give up the things you love to do even if it's not your job." A member of his soccer team and college friend introduced him to a record label attorney who forwarded his resume to EMI Music North America, which hired him to work in its corporate legal group at significant cut to his prior law firm salary. The step back in salary was a worthwhile career investment. Several years later, people he knew told him about an opening at Harry Fox, an operating subsidiary of the National Music Publishers' Association (the US music publishing trade association) where he has worked for the past 9 years. He deals with copyright issues, gets paid for his judgment and is relied on for his business knowledge.
Charles J. Siegel is the Managing Trial Attorney at CNA Insurance. He started his career as a court officer. After he obtained his law degree, he landed a job at the Bronx District Attorney's Office through his contacts in the courts. As an ADA, he honed his litigation skills and then moved to CNA where he has worked for 27 years. The pros: no overhead, dealing with steady paychecks and regular hours. The cons: dealing with a bureaucracy and policies set by someone who has the insurance company's interest and not necessarily your law office's interests at heart. CNA has 31 staff counsel offices across the country (which serve as a national law firm) and also affords lawyers different career options, e.g., in claims and regulatory affairs.
The panelists fielded a wide array of questions (summarized below by topic).
Finding an In-House Position
Do all you can to find a job. Gear your resume and cover letter for the online job posting. CNA looks for experienced attorneys who can handle matters without requiring training and offers incentives to employees who bring in candidates. (Charles)
Use your network to get information, which may eventually lead to a job. People will help if they like you. (Melissa)
When networking, ask for an introduction, not a job. A way to get into a company is by taking a temp position that is substantive. Corporations do not like to deal with multiple recruiters. If a recruiter indicates that a company wants a specific skill set, use another means of entry, although it is easier to sell a candidate when the recruiter has a relationship with the client. (Evan)
Develop relationships with a small number of recruiters. They are human. I presented candidates with whom I had relationships even if their background was not an exact match. (Robyn)
Hiring is based on the interview and resume. (Charles)
Targeting Company by Size and Type (Public vs. Private Sector)
Be open to opportunities. (Melissa)
Private companies are more entrepreneurial. Public companies are easily researchable. (Evan)
Your Resume Does Not Hit All Points of a Job Description
When a candidate is ignored for not meeting all job description criterion, it is more of a reflection of the hiring manager's personality. Apply through the company website and ask a contact inside the company to hand in your resume. Ignore weaknesses and address at the interview, if necessary. Do not lie or embellish as doing so undermines credibility. (Charles)
Keep in mind that the job description is a wish list. Matching 70% of the job description is sufficient. When you interview, you can express the willingness to learn. Lying on a resume can result in termination. (Melissa)
Duplicate the verbiage in a job ad to avoid being overlooked when submitting a resume to HR or electronically. (Evan)
New Attorneys Applying for Jobs that Don't Match Background
No one expects a 25 year old to know what he/she wants to do. Have a good, persuasive answer for your newfound interest in order to get the job. People move in the wrong direction. That's life. (Christos)
Transitioning In-House as a Junior Attorney
Depends on size of bank and area. Companies do not have resources to train. (Melissa)
Focus on start-up companies, which generally cannot afford senior attorneys. Look at long-term growth prospects, including stock options. (Christos)
In-house counsel runs with a project while law firm associates work on projects with others. (Evan)
Applying for Lower Level Positions
The job application should emphasize the reasons the candidate is the best person for the position. Employers recognize that the market took a hit. There is a difference between undervaluing your worth and taking a pay cut. Underselling one's self sends the message that the candidate is better on paper. (Charles)
Hiring managers want to make sure that the candidate is committed and will be happy. Think about what you want and whether the position for which applying is the right fit. (Melissa)
Some employers may not be receptive due to concerns of voluntary departure once the market improves. However, address issues openly and directly early on in the process. (Evan)
The hiring focus: whether the candidate's skill set and training meets the employer's needs, is committed for the long haul (due to the willingness to teach the business end) and is interested in entertainment and music. (Christos)
A Specialist's Approach to Job Ads Seeking Broad Experience
Look for positions that can broaden experience. For example, a tax specialist may consider applying for a job in professional liability claims. (Charles)
Large law departments, like the one at Con Ed, need specialists. (Susan)
Use your expertise as leverage. Tax is hard but may be valuable for accountant liability. Maintain several resumes and target your application based on the ad. (Evan)
Think about areas that overlap with your specialty, such as tax, and learn as you go. "We all need to shift and maneuver." Remember the resume is a piece of marketing, not an affidavit. Tweak your resume to fit the job description and use it as a means to spin and market yourself. (Robyn)
Reliance on Interests When Lacking Work Experience
Highlighting interests on your resume is useful but must be legitimized at the interview. (Christos)
Demonstrate an interest in the job and company. (Melissa)
Getting Personal at the Interview
It is important for candidate to show personality and the ability to relate to others. I once hired a woman who did not let me get a word in edgewise. I found her style beneficial for success in the courtroom and hired her. (Charles)
Be yourself. People like to work with people they like. (Evan)
People want others to fit into the work culture. Know the right fit for yourself so you can be happy at work. (Melissa)
Trust your instincts. Take cues from the interviewer and adjust accordingly. (Robyn)
Determining Salary Range for In-House Jobs
There is no one answer. A salary decrease is often associated with the transition in-house from a large firm. Don't be afraid, and look at the ability to make money long-term. Some industries don't pay well, and salaries can vary for the same job across industries. Identify what you need to pay your bills and use that as your base. Taking a job that does not support your lifestyle will create stress and unhappiness. (Evan)
Presenting Salary History When the Job's Salary is Not Publicized
Salary is budgeted. Salary history is verified. Be honest. Pursue jobs associated with a salary that works for you and negotiate. (Melissa)
Some companies attempt to pay minimal salaries. Know your base salary and negotiate. (Evan)
In-House Role Expectations/Final Thoughts
I worked for only two employers and love the work and people. (Susan)
Consider clerking if you are a litigator in transition. It is important to find the right place to work. (Melissa)
Networking is key, which is afforded through active participation in the NYSBA. (Charles)
Assess what you like, what you want to do and what you don't like. Talk to people. (Christos)
Take paths that will lead to your ultimate job. Government jobs are a good way to go in-house. Do not discount instincts, and go with what is right for you. (Evan)
To view the webcast, vist the Lawyers in Transition Committee Webpage and look for the Webcast archive.