Many of today’s law firm associates aspire for the top spot of General Counsel. But reaching this goal is far from easy. It takes hard work, perseverance, a strategy and…luck. Without these elements, the road to the summit will be a tough climb. So the sooner you start, the better.
As an associate in a large law firm, your short-term…and best options will depend on a few factors including: your current practice area, the cache of your firm and your compensation expectations.
If your practice is transaction oriented, the best strategic move is a role in house. However, if you pursue this route, it is important to understand the challenges involved and to manage your expectations accordingly so you don’t get demoralized. Most corporate employers prefer candidates with existing in house experience. So your lack of it will put you at a competitive disadvantage with employers who insist on the requirement. With this said, an increasing number of companies are open to law firm lawyers who possess great experience and are a good culture fit.
Depending on your seniority, your options with such companies will consist of lower to mid level roles with titles including Corporate Counsel, Sr. Corporate Counsel, AGC (in private companies) – or something of the like. A VP title is highly unlikely out of the gate – as is GC given the seniority level and lack of in house experience. A corporate, product or commercial/tech transactions role is the most marketable towards a GC goal at this time. Other practice areas such as employment, litigation, legal ops and patent are also somewhat active, but generally speaking these specialties are not as highly prioritized by company executives when hiring a GC.
If your transaction practice is less marketable for an in house role, a lateral law firm move is a viable consideration – provided it is one that can provide you with the opportunity to take on more diverse (and relevant) transaction work or allow you to retool your practice altogether. This move would serve as a stepping-stone to increase your marketability for future in house opportunities. If you’re in a less branded firm, moving to a firm that has “cache” and is recognized as prestigious is another stepping-stone dynamic.
If you are a litigator, your in house options will be more limited (but are on the rise). In addition, lawyers with transaction backgrounds fill the vast majority of GC roles. So the route to GC as a litigator will have higher hurdles. Given this, you have three options for your next change: (1) move to another law firm to retool your practice; (2) move in house as a litigator and try to retool/diversify your practice during your tenure in house; or (3) try to reach the GC goal as a litigator.
Regardless of your practice, compensation plays an important role in your next move. While the gap is closing, there still exists a healthy delta between law firm associate salaries and junior-midlevel lawyer in house compensation (thank you Cravath). So crunch the numbers and determine your financial bottom line before you embark on your search. Depending on what you learn, you may find your options affected by the outcome.
These are the short-term career options and considerations.
Equally important to these is a strategy…and approach with a long-term view. What is it going to take for you to evolve into a top legal executive? How are you going to hone your business acumen? Use your intellectual curiosity? Perfect your quality of service? Become a great manager? Cultivate the best relationships? Polish your executive presence? Deal with politics? Be selfless? Diversify your experience? These areas must be developed, nurtured and polished in addition to your employment choices in order to maximize your chances for the brass ring. So as a law firm associate contemplating your next career move, keep in mind what I’ve mentioned above: The long…and the short of it.