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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

March 12, 2016

I’m a commercial lawyer at a multi-billion dollar company. I want to gain corporate securities experience so I can compete for GC jobs. Should I go to a law firm or another company to do this? Does brand matter?

Julie Q. Brush

Legal departments at very large companies are typically siloed in structure. Which means that each lawyer performs a specific role and everyone sticks to his/her knitting. Consequently, lawyers don’t have much of an opportunity – in a single role – to handle many diverse substantive legal matters. So if a Big Company lawyer is interested in diversifying his/her experience, it isn’t likely to happen in this company – unless there is a move to a completely different role in a different practice area. And the odds of this happening are slim.

So if you want to round out your skill set, your best bet is to make a move to an organization that will provide you with the opportunity to do so. And moving to another company will provide the greatest number of options. A law firm move isn’t a wise choice in this legal market. In order to move to a law firm with your background and at this stage of your career, you will need to “retool” your practice – from commercial/licensing to corporate securities. And in the current market, opportunities for corporate securities associates are low to moderate and competition is beyond stiff. Consequently, you will be at a significant disadvantage should you choose to explore this path.

The best strategy for you is to search for positions with public companies that have moderately or modestly sized legal departments. Not in a corporate securities role, you’re not marketable for this type of position …yet. But in a commercial role, which, in companies with this profile can be broader in scope. In addition, these smaller legal departments (and some mid-sized departments) tend to be more fluid. And because there is less bandwidth, the lawyers are asked to provide support on a variety of diverse matters. This means that the percentage breakdown of what they do on a day-to-day basis is spread out across a wider range of substantive areas. It’s a nice structure for those who like more variety.

You’re also marketable for commercial roles in start-up companies. These positions will offer you some diversity, but you won’t get the securities/governance experience that you seek. Exceptions exist either if the company goes public and the GC allows you to cut your teeth on some of the company’s new securities matters…or if you are the only lawyer who’s been given the opportunity to take the company public. These could be viable options for you if you see these results in the cards.

With all of this said, it is important to note that not all companies (particularly private companies) require their GCs to possess corporate securities experience. Some want a broad range lawyer; others focus on areas like privacy, management or industry expertise etc. So if it’s the GC crown you want, a corporate securities background is not a prerequisite in every circumstance. Bear this in mind as you plot your next move.

So what about brand trade off? Is it ok to trade in a high profile company brand with a lesser-known brand in order to develop the added experience? You bet. If you can snag a role that will allow you to gain the experience you crave and one that furthers your career, the company brand is not as crucial. You have already achieved brand credibility with your current employer. So you have some room to make the trade off with your next move.

The path to diversification…or General Counsel is not easy, but it is doable in today’s market. With an understanding of your options and a solid plan of execution, you’ll increase your chances of reaching the top and will be well on your way to 10-K heaven.

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