Do excellent work no matter who is watching. Excellent work is the price of admission for anyone to want to help you do something professionally....
I didn’t have a moment that made me decide that I wanted to leave Big Law to go in-house. No single insane deal or partner (though I had my share of both). I wanted my legal work to be deeply ingrained in a business, and I thought - and still think - that the impact of an in-house lawyer on a business is just different from what you can do as outside counsel. This much I knew from the beginning: I wanted to go in-house. I did not know much more than that.
How it happened: I started looking to go in-house in earnest in the summer of 2010. I started meeting with people to understand my options. First, I met several recruiters. A few were nice, most were self-interested, and it got me nowhere. (No knock on recruiters generally, by the way, it just didn’t work out for me.) I needed to figure out how to find something on my own.
I spent months meeting with friends (and friends of friends), former colleagues, and other people doing interesting things. I probably had 50 of these coffee meetings.
I didn’t ask for anything; I was there to learn and to ask questions. I wanted to understand what in-house lawyers did and how this differed company-to-company...
One afternoon, I had lunch with a partner I worked with at Heller Ehrman, my first law firm, which imploded in grand fashion in 2008. Without me asking, and completely off-topic, the partner mentioned that his client was hiring an Assistant GC. I worked with the client briefly, once, as a first year associate. He didn’t remember me, but the connection was crucial. I was highly recommended based on work I did as a first and second-year associate. Things moved very quickly and that client is now my boss.
My path to my current position wasn’t all that different from many others I encountered along the way. Here are a few key lessons from the experience:
1. Do excellent work no matter who is watching.
Excellent work is the price of admission for anyone to want to help you do something professionally. As Rebecca Signer Roche mentioned in her post in this series, “Be the best associate a client has ever had and you will be the first person the client thinks of the next time there is an opening.” In my case, I earned a recommendation for a job based on work I did years before as a junior associate at a law firm that no longer existed. At the time, I had no understanding of where that work might lead. You have to do your best work every day; there’s no shortcut or tip to get around it.
2. Pursue opportunities to be memorable.
In addition to doing excellent work, try to find ways to be memorable inside of your firm or company. In my case, I took every opportunity to get away from the typical big firm associate track. I said yes to every opportunity to take more responsibility, get more exposure to people throughout the firm, and generally do the work of someone more senior than I actually was. I moved from San Diego to New York to help support a growing office; I moved to London to open a new office; I was awarded a pro bono fellowship through which I’d design and manage a pro bono program for the East Coast transactional lawyers at my firm. Ask around and find ways to stand out in addition to doing what everyone else does well; if you see an opportunity to impact people in your organization that isn’t part of a formal program, find a way to do something about it.
3. Build relationships.
I’ve discussed elsewhere the importance of building relationships without expectations. I learned quickly what in-house lawyers do, what matters to General Counsels when they’re hiring, and what problems I could identify and solve in different types of in-house roles. I thought about it like I’d think about sales: what are my clients’ problems, and how is my solution (in this case, me) something they can’t live without?
If you’re looking to go in-house (or change jobs generally), it’s essential to learn what you can about where you want to go, and the only way to do this well involves spending a lot of time with people who are well-connected to that industry, role or company. If you don’t know them, make it a priority to meet them. [If you want to go in-house or work in my industry, ask me about it.]
4. Understand what matters to you.
Jobs are very different in real life than they are on paper. I learned that in-house jobs with the same titles can be hard to recognize as at all related to each other from company to company: involvement in the business, what you actually do everyday, sophistication of the work, repetition of the work (i.e., do you work on the same types of agreements all day, every day?), opportunities for advancement, hours, flexibility, and quality of life. My 50 coffee meetings helped me understand what I wanted out of an in-house job: I wanted deep involvement in the business, strong mentoring, a smaller legal department, a lot of room to grow, and a reasonable quality of life. Once I could articulate to others what I actually wanted to do, it became much easier to know what might or might not work.
5. No job will be perfect.
By doing excellent work, you earn recommendations. By building relationships and understanding what matters to you, you’ve learned about what your life could look like in various jobs and prioritized what’s meaningful to you. Prioritizing what’s meaningful does not mean creating a checklist of demands, however, and no job will check all of the boxes. I made a great decision when I decided to take this job; I wouldn’t have considered it because of certain elements (some of which are geographic, some are industry-specific) had I not first worked through the process of building relationships with people close to the job and understanding my priorities.
[Josh Beser is Assistant General Counsel at Lonza, a global leader in life sciences and specialty ingredients with over 10,000 employees worldwide. Josh also mentors technology companies with Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in Manhattan. Previously, Josh was a corporate associate at Bingham McCutchen LLP and Heller Ehrman LLP, representing emerging companies in the technology and life sciences industries. Connect with Josh on Twitter and LinkedIn.]