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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 3, 2017

I’m a senior law firm lawyer and want to move in house. How do I convince employers that my experience is relevant and I’m not too old?

Julie Q. Brush

Today’s employment market for lawyers is more competitive than ever. Even those with perfect paper and perfect personalities are discovering that landing the job of their dreams is far from easy. So everyone is experiencing varying degrees of struggle depending on his/her individual challenges. Your material challenges pose a double whammy: (1) Your lack of in house experience; and (2) Your seniority.

In order to maximize your ability overcome these challenges and convince employers that you are the best person for the job, you’ll need to understand the nature of the objection and create a thoughtful strategy…and messaging to address it. Let’s look at each issue separately:

Lack of In House Experience

1. Understanding The Nature Of The Objection:

In today’s in house hiring world, the level of consideration for law firm candidates is mixed. But with all things being equal, an employer will hire the candidate with in house experience. Why? Because law firm and corporate environments are two completely different worlds…maybe even different planets. And the transition from law firm to in house can be very challenging. Some lawyers never acclimate while others make the transition over a longer period of time. Neither of which is ideal for an employer.

Candidates who possess in house experience have already been part of a corporate culture and know how its lawyers operate within it. They have handled the types of legal matters and corporate issues that are part of a corporate environment and have had to work with all the moving parts of a company. As a result, these lawyers don’t have to master a steep learning curve and ramp up tends to be much shorter. They are, in other words: A safer bet.

Law firm lawyers on the other hand, work on a variety of matters for different clients. They are hyper-aware of billable hours and keeping track of their time, which is a structure that dominates their world. There are no internal clients and visibility is limited into the inner workings of the company. Consequently, a law firm lawyer isn’t “under the skin” of their company client. But rather on the outside, looking in.

While more differences exist, these are the basics. And it is clear to see why a corporate employer might favor a candidate with in house experience.

2. The Strategy to Overcome the Objection:

So how does a law firm lawyer overcome the lack of in house experience? Below are a few points that will help persuade an employer:

Lots of Deals and Lots of Diversity Set You Apart.

Use the diversity of your clients and deals/matters as a competitive advantage. You’re in the trenches and working on a plethora of matters for many clients so you are exposed to more variety, different situations, diverse questions – and perhaps managing multiple matters and multiple teams. It is experience you bring to an in house role that will serve as a huge value-add for an employer. This is the strongest card you have to play on the substantive side so your messaging needs to be persuasive.

You’ve Got “Business Acumen”.

This is a crucial skill to have as an in house lawyer and a quality that employers prioritize. Emphasize that you possess it and demonstrate why. Communicate what the skill means to you and its influence on how you practice. Also articulate the context in which you would apply your business acumen for this specific role…for this specific employer.

You Get It.

Many employers don’t believe that a law firm lawyer has the slightest idea what’s it’s like to work in a company – hence their apprehension. Let them know that you do: The practice, the values, the collaboration, the service, the culture etc. It can be part of the messaging as to why you want to go in house or as part of addressing the objection directly.

Come In With A Plan.

What would you do in the first 30/60/90 days in the role? How would you prioritize? What would you want to know? How would you get the answers? Who would you meet? Do your homework and based on the information you learn, provide a cohesive narrative on how you would perform the function. Most candidates don’t go this extra mile. For those who do…and do it well, it’s pure interview gold.

You Understand the In House Culture.

Culture and “fit” are hugely important in a company. So, articulate that you understand the make-up of a corporate culture and discuss how you would approach your role as a corporate citizen and colleague. In addition, life in a company can be more fast-paced. Demonstrate how you can move on a dime and pivot when needed.

Your Seniority

1. Understanding The Nature Of The Objection…and The Strategy To Overcome It.

For many “seasoned” lawyers (those in their late 40’s to mid 60’s), a common worry tends to arise when seeking greener pastures: Am I too old to be marketable? How can I compete in a market that seems to favor twenty and thirty-somethings? These seasoned lawyers are healthy, feel great and look great too. There is still plenty of gas in the tank. And with their wealth of knowledge and experience, they have a lot to offer many employers. But not every employer sees it that way.

Below are a few common objections employers will have in an interview setting…and the sample responses you can use as a model for your own response if you find yourself in this dynamic:

Objection: You are overqualified for the role & I think you will get bored.

Sample Response #1: “I’m fascinated by this company/firm because it’s on the cutting edge of innovation, which never bores me. In every role, there are new things to learn and ways to maximize value for the company. That is an evolving process, which I find challenging and engaging. This role is interesting because it requires a strong corporate background and is highly collaborative with other functions. I also like the detailed aspect of the role because I like to roll up my sleeves and stay connected with the legal issues. I do possess impressive experience and am an expert on the corporate side. And in my opinion, you need an expert in order to gain confidence and credibility with the executives and legal team.” 

Sample Response #2: “I understand why you might view it that way. While I do possess a deep level of experience, I do not view myself as overqualified, but rather someone who will bring added expertise and greater depth to the team. I love what I do. And people who love what they do, don’t get bored. So all of my positions have been rewarding. I’m also fine with the compensation range so the value you’d receive from me will exceed anyone with less experience.”

Objection: You are too expensive.

Response: “My main interest is being paid fairly as it relates to this position. Money is not my primary driver. It takes a back seat to the role itself, the company/firm, the culture and the overall fit. I’m also not a malcontent about money, which is something that might concern you. I won’t constantly be pushing for more. I’m aware of the compensation range for this role and I think it’s a fair range. So this is really a non-issue.”

Objection: This position requires you to roll up your sleeves. You seem like you would prefer a larger management role.

Response: “I think it’s vital to be in the trenches if you want to stay connected at a more granular level. In my current role, a big part of what I do involves not only drafting and negotiating, but also handling administrative matters. If something needs to get done, I do it. There is a management aspect to my current role, which is something I prefer to minimize more on a day-to-day basis. This is why this position is so appealing to me.” 

Objection: This is a very fast-paced environment. I’m not sure there is a fit.

Response: “In every position I’ve held, I’ve had to attend to matters quickly. When working on matters for a number of clients simultaneously, service is paramount. And in order to provide the best service, you need to move quickly, be nimble and work with a sense of urgency – or your client will switch firms. You also need a lot of energy and a strong work ethic. These are areas I have always excelled in. In my current role, things change quickly and I’m constantly reprioritizing. This is great experience that I would bring to this role. What were the specific concerns you had about my ability to work in a fast-paced culture?”

As a senior law firm lawyer, making the transition in house with these two material challenges won’t be easy. But it’s not impossible. There are employers who are open to considering what you have to offer and are willing to take the chance if you can make a compelling case. So manage your expectations, be patient and follow the advice above. And you’ll put yourself in position to capitalize on the opportunity when it presents itself.

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