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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 11, 2017

I’m an unhappy law firm partner and am interviewing for an in-house job. What’s the best way to answer the question “Why do you want to go in-house?” without sounding bitter or negative?

Julie Q. Brush

These days, the life of a law firm lawyer is no walk in the park. And it’s especially tough for law firm partners. The commoditization of legal services and growth of the in house legal department have put the squeeze on partners to produce and bill hours. Year. After year. After year. For some shareholders, it feels like a maddening vice tightening and loosening in response to the prior year’s “numbers”. Consequently, an increasing number of law firm partners are seeking refuge in the warm bosom of the corporate legal department – a place where life is kinder and gentler for a legal professional.

The reality is that most everyone in the profession already knows – and understands the real reasons a law firm partner would want to transition in house: Law firm partners are tired of the pressure to develop business, nitpicking their time in minute increments, logging large billable hours, the lack of time flexibility, the political jockeying…and an uncertain future. To name a few.

But in an interview setting, being so direct can about these reasons can give the impression that you are a whiner, a negative person, you don’t want to work hard and are generally a malcontent. It’s the type of employee no hiring manager wants on his/her team. It also signals that you are more interested in running from your current job rather than choosing to explore this employer’s opportunity because of its specific virtues and merits.

So the best interview responses to the “Why do you want to go in-house?” questions involve a carefully worded message that (1) highlight some of the appeal of the in-house position for which a candidate is applying; and (2) describe some aspect(s) of the law firm environment that does not align with your current career goals, wants and needs. You don’t need to go into excessive detail with your answer, but some credible color is advised. Below are a few examples:

Employer: “Susan, you seem like you are doing well as a law firm partner. Why would you want to move in house?” 

Susan: “Yes, I believe I have succeeded at Law Firm X and have learned a great deal, but it has been a career goal of mine to transition my practice in house – and the opportunity with Company X is particularly appealing. I like the idea of helping to drive the business of an organization and work collaboratively with other business and legal team members. As a law firm partner, I work with many clients – and while that has given me exposure to a variety of legal issues, it’s a sporadic and often siloed interaction. So this fundamental shift in approach is something I’m looking for and would be fulfilling.”

Employer: “Robert, so why are you interested in moving in house? 

Robert: “I started my career in the law firm because I believed it was the best place to develop great legal training. That has undoubtedly been true and I’ve been able to cultivate a sophisticated expertise. But I’ve always been interested in being part of a company that makes great products like Company A. One thing that appeals to me is the opportunity to focus my efforts more deeply on the organization as a whole and serving as a utility player in a smaller legal department. I have found at times, there is an over-emphasis on clock watching in a law firm. In house lawyers aren’t bound by these requirements, so they are freer to direct their focus and attentions to various areas in support of the company. I really like this structure and believe this is where I would add a great deal of value.”

Employer: “Lee, I hear it’s really stressful and hard to be a partner in a law firm. Is that why you want to move in house?

Lee: “There are aspects of being a law firm lawyer in today’s profession that have its challenges, but my desire to move in house is about being more integrated on the business side of a company as a lawyer. I’ve always been a business-oriented lawyer with a strong interest in how legal intersects with business. I also like the team-oriented nature of an in house legal department and working towards a common goal. Law firms are evolving in a different way, which doesn’t align with how I see myself enjoying the practice in the near future.”

Even when an answer is obvious to everyone in the room, the way a candidate expresses him/herself and the words used to respond to interview questions are of critical importance. One exasperated tone, one snarky comment, one bumbling diatribe and a candidacy is likely to be toast. As a law firm partner seeking to move in house, your push factors are well known. But you’ll still be judged on the quality and professionalism of your explanation. So take the time to think things through and practice until you’ve hit your comfort zone. And come game time, you’ll be well prepared to knock it out of the park.

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