Contemplating a Transition From BigLaw to In-House? 5 Tips from a Lawyer Coach

Contemplating a Transition From BigLaw to In-House? by Charlotte Smith for Contract NerdsBigLaw to In-House, it’s a little like moving across the world. Here’s what it takes to make a successful transition, straight from a lawyer coach.

Seven years ago, I turned down a partnership offer in the UK. Weeks later, I boarded the plane with my husband destined for Silicon Valley, California. As an employment lawyer working with airlines, tour operators, and hotel groups, my legal career meant extensive work travel and long hours. I had experienced work life across Europe and in places as far-flung as Jakarta, Indonesia.

So, I didn’t expect the transition from the UK to California to be all that difficult. In many ways, the UK and the US are very similar.

We have a shared history.

Speak a common language.

Share a love of both Beyonce and Adele.

The place can’t be that different. Right?

There are obvious similarities, yet when we dive deeper, it really can be worlds apart.

I have worked with many attorneys who made the transition from BigLaw to In-House. The consensus is that this transition parallels the diverse landscape of moving across the world.

In order to create real success in your transition from BigLaw to In-House, you need to master some new skills and behaviors, such as learning the subtle intricacies of the language difference,  understanding a new culture, executing confidently, and releasing any barriers which hold you back.

5 Tips from a Lawyer Coach

Having served as a lawyer coach, consultant, and confidant to many high-performing international attorneys, in-house counsel, and legal teams, I interviewed many rockstar General Counsels for my Limitless Lawyer Podcast about their career paths. I wanted to share some thoughts and observations around the transition from BigLaw to In-House. On the surface, this transition sounds straight-forward. But in reality, the two practices are very different. If I were to coach an attorney who was thinking about transitioning from BigLaw to In-House practice, these are the five key areas I would coach them to master.

1.   Relationships + No More Dr. “No”

As in-house counsel, a huge part of your success lies in creating robust relationships. Not just with your legal colleagues, but with your internal clients and stakeholders – the business units, sales and operations functions.

Your personal brand is “what people say about you when you’re not there”. You want to avoid building a reputation of being Dr. “No”. To be a great in-house counsel, you should provide excellent customer service to your internal clients. That means finding creative solutions to business and legal problems rather than being a roadblock or nay sayer.

Building your credibility and becoming known and trusted as someone who can manage risk and compliance, while getting the deals done is quite an art. You want your clients to come to you before anything goes wrong, just as much as when it does. Mastering executive presence can be challenging, but cultivating it can help to accelerate your career.

2.   The Big Picture

Developing a commercial mind is fundamental. To thrive In-House, you should adopt a curious and generalist approach to learning and cultivate a range of professional experiences. You should understand the company, the brands, the different business functions. These approaches will help you gain insights into how the critical elements of business, leadership, and management fit together. Having strong commercial acumen as in-house counsel is huge, “and it’s so often missing,” a Silicon Valley Tech VC told me recently. “Coach them to develop that!”

Building on what we discussed around “Dr. No” above, your role is not to write a lengthy memo on a particular issue’s legal nuances. This will not suffice. Instead, it would be best if you were offering commercially minded recommendations with a real course of action in business English.

3.   Management and Leadership Skills

I have noticed that attorneys straight out of BigLaw tend to have underdeveloped management and leadership skills.

Many BigLaw attorneys I have spoken with suggest that those with business acumen, who are interested in management leadership, tend not to go to law school; they go and do their MBA. The logically-minded, attention-to-detail types get their JD.

Leadership and management skills aren’t really taught in law school. Similarly, opportunities for management aren’t always available in BigLaw.  Yet these are all essential skills for great in-house counsel to cultivate.

In addition, you should develop and hone your curiosity and passion for innovation. Be willing to embrace legal technologies to accelerate workflows and productivity of the department. Turn your hand to project management. Knowledge around legal operation systems will empower you to quantify the legal team’s value, output, and productivity through the use of data.

4.   Lawyer Mindsets + Teamwork

Lawyers can be a competitive bunch. Many of us are perfectionists. We are hyper-achievers who have a habit of attaching “value” to our career successes.

Back to our lawyer theories, and whether this is our natural propensity or is programmed into us, being a revenue generator in BigLaw with your 2000+ hour requirements can perpetuate and in some cases accentuate inherent competitive attributes.

Letting go of the competitive, “success junkie” mindset in favor of teamwork, and self-compassion in favor of perfectionism is simply crucial.  Work on yourself, and shed any limiting ways of being. This will guarantee that you will uplevel your life and career satisfaction. This is incredibly important work.

5.   Fear of Failure

Just as competitiveness should substitute for team harmony as an in-house lawyer,  It is equally important to release any deep-rooted fear of failure, which many lawyers have.

Fear of failure can manifest as perfectionism or imposter syndrome. It can feel exhausting and paralyzing, and it can be challenging to release. Yes, sloppiness has no place in legal writing. Accuracy is important. But perfectionism can lead us to be overly risk-averse while blocking our ability to problem-solve. It zaps our energy, innovation and creativity.

It is a real art to recognize where to strive for perfection and when to let perfectionism go.

“Entrepreneurs and legal tech engineers love failure, it helps us get better, it helps us to respond. For lawyers the fear of failure can hold us back.” ~ Alistair Maiden, CEO of SYKE

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Thinking about taking the leap from BigLaw to In-House practice?  Charlotte has a track record of taking her clients to the greatest levels of life and career satisfaction, helping them enhance performance, release any limitations and optimize career and life transitions. Reach out to her here.

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