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December 19, 2017

How important is in house experience when applying for an in house job?

Julie Q. Brush

The requirement of prior in house experience for in house opportunities has ridden a swinging pendulum since the late 90’s. It started with the Dot-Com Boom as new companies hit the corporate scene and hired lawyers at a frenetic pace. During that time, in house lawyers were scarce. So the law firms were the primary hunting ground for legal talent. As the market evolved, in house legal departments grew and the general sentiment towards law firm lawyers shifted. Employers saw this group as having too difficult a time acclimating to the corporate environment. To them, the contrast between practicing in a company and a law firm was stark…and the disconnect was palatable. By 2005, the pendulum had swung with momentum and the overwhelming majority of employers required prior in house experience as a pre-requisite for a viable candidacy. At this point, the market was chocked full of in house lawyers so the hard requirement received few exceptions.

In 2010, as the world began its recovery from the prior year’s economic Armageddon, the legal profession hit another evolutionary milestone. The in house legal department began a new expansion – adding diverse practice capabilities to its ranks. In addition, the private company and emerging growth markets were resuscitated and the Dot-Com Boom…Part 2 was well on its way. Finally, the number of jobs requiring top in house talent is outpacing the number of viable…and receptive in house lawyers. As we head into the back nine of 2017, it is these three factors that continue to influence the legal employment market. This includes how employers view the necessity of in house experience for their opportunities in Legal.

So what’s the trajectory of the pendulum today?

All things being equal, candidates possessing in house experience still hold a healthy competitive advantage in today’s legal market. With this said, the requirement has been relaxed and the consideration is a bit more balanced due to the factors noted above, specifically at the junior levels. So employers are more amenable to hiring law firm attorneys…depending on two primary factors: (1) Practice area, and (2) Seniority. Below are a few such examples of where employer flexibility resides:

Employers willing to consider law firm lawyers in the following practice areas/seniority:

  • Litigation (all levels)
  • Labor & Employment (all levels)
  • Tech transactions (junior lawyers/Corporate Counsel level)
  • Product (junior lawyers/Corporate Counsel level) **Note: employers will retool junior law firm associates in other practice areas
  • Privacy **Note: some employers will consider junior level and only if experience is specialized within the law firm.
  • Corporate securities (junior lawyers/Corporate Counsel level) **Note: Private companies are retooling these lawyers as commercial and product lawyers.
  • IP (junior patent prosecution lawyers with an EE, CS or hard life sciences degree)
  • M&A
  • Executive Compensation

Prior in house experience is required for the following roles:

  • General Counsel
  • Director of Legal Affairs/VP Legal Affairs/Head of Legal (first lawyer added in a private company)
  • Privacy
  • Product – Senior Corporate Counsel level and higher
  • IP – Senior Corporate Counsel level and higher
  • Tech Transactions (mid-level and senior lawyers)
  • Corporate Securities – Director level and higher
  • Compliance
  • Legal Operations

Of course, there are exceptions to these examples and outlier situations do exist. But generally speaking, this is the current state of affairs regarding this issue in the market today. It is also important to note that as the number of in house lawyers increases at the junior levels and in the expanding practice areas, it is almost certain that the pendulum will swing yet again in the direction of a hard requirement for existing in house experience. But until then, the window of opportunity for a select group of law firm lawyers will remain open for the near future.

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