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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

February 28, 2016
Question

I’m a law firm associate and want to relocate to California for an in house position. What is the best strategy to do this?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

Congratulations on your decision to move to the Sunshine State. Now that you have committed to this decision, it’s time to start planning how you’re going to make it happen. Applying for positions online, networking and working with recruiters for assistance are three obvious paths to pursue for your in house move. But without great contacts in your network that can get you in the door with a company in California, or a highly specialized practice area not abundantly found locally (i.e. 40 Act, financial services, regulatory) it is highly likely you’re going to have to reach this goal in steps.

The in house legal market in California is active – probably more active than any other region in the U.S…or the globe. It also has an incredibly deep bench of talent. Lawyers with great experience. Lawyers with great credentials. Lawyers with great personalities. California attracts some of the very best and brightest individuals in the legal profession. And hiring managers know it. Consequently, the vast majority of hiring managers look to the local candidate pool first before considering candidates from other parts of the country – or the state for that matter. Even if they are open to non-local candidates, they want to see what the local talent looks like first.

In addition, in house employers – given their druthers, would prefer to hire a lawyer with existing in house experience. They will consider law firm lawyers from time to time depending on the role, the seniority and the practice area, but in house experience still dominates the hiring criteria.

So being non-local and possessing no in house experience is a double whammy.

But all is not lost if you’re willing to be patient. The first thing I recommend is to take the biggest objection to your candidacy off the table…your location. Regarding this, my advice is to relocate to a law firm in California as a first step. If you are with a firm that has an office in your desired area, put in a request to transfer. If you need to socialize people internally to do it, then start socializing people internally to do it – both in your current office and with the partners in California.

If transferring offices is not an option, then apply to other firms. You can apply on your own or use a legal recruiter – your call. And you’ll need to be Cal Bar admitted. This requirement was not as big of a deal for transfers 13 – 15 years ago, but it sure is now. Firms will reject even the prettiest paper if they don’t see Cal Bar membership written on the page. So if you don’t have it, you need to take it as soon as possible. If you’ve been in practice long enough, you won’t have to take the entire exam. A portion of it will be waived.

The type of firm you join should be strategic as well. It should be integrated in the community and have a good profile with companies in the area. Ideally, it should have a superb brand that you can use as a springboard into your next in house position. But if you can’t get into one of those firms, make sure that whichever firm you join creates a good strategic platform for your next move.

You’ll need to be at the firm for at least a year before moving on. Ideally, it will be two years, but lawyers in your situation get ants in their pants and want to push forward sooner than later to move in house. During your tenure with the law firm, continue to focus on getting great experience and positioning yourself substantively to maximize your marketability for an in house position.

Another…more extreme option is available as well. If you are having difficulty securing a law firm position and/or do not wish to take the California Bar exam, quitting your job and relocating will give you “local” status and allow you the time to solely pursue in house opportunities. While some of you may gasp in horror at the thought of this path, an unemployed lawyer searching for a new position is more commonplace in California and won’t materially compromise your candidacy. You’ll have approximately 12-18 months of sitting on the sidelines before flags are raised. So this is a viable option if you can make it work personally and financially.

With luck, contacts and perseverance you may not need to go through these steps. But if you find you are hitting one dead end after another in your pursuit of an in house position now, the strategy above will position you effectively to make the transition once you are in the land of surf, sun and sea.

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