Natalie A. Black, general counsel of Kohler Co. in Kohler, unabashedly loves her job.
But in-house practice isn’t for everyone — notably, for those motivated by economic rewards, private practice may be better.
For Black, she’s done both, and favors being in-house because, “You’re part of a solution, not just a contributor to a single issue, as you are in private practice. You’re part of solving bigger problems beyond just the legal component, and I think that’s very rewarding.”
Joan B. Farrell, of Goodwill of Southeastern Wisconsin Inc. in Milwaukee, said she enjoys being “part of a team.”
Farrell additionally prefers freedom from tracking her time, and doesn’t miss the economic stresses of owning a solo practice that she previously faced.
“Now I can participate in meetings where I don’t have to watch the time and worry about if I’m spending too much time on this, how much that’s going to cost and will the client see the value and want to pay? I don’t have those kinds of pressures anymore.”
Attorney Maurice D. Jones said those who don’t like making rain tend to be happier in-house. But, he cautions, you’ll very likely fill the time that you’re not marketing with other tasks.
“There’s a perception that in-house is more of an 8-to-5 job, as opposed to working at a large law firm.
That’s not the case here,” said Jones, general counsel for The Manitowoc Company in Manitowoc.
“It’s not because we’re task masters, but we’re professionals and we all came from the law-firm environment. We know how to work to get the work done.”
Experience and Degrees
Jones, a former shareholder at Davis & Kuelthau sc in Milwaukee, said he followed the customary route for going in-house, which is to gain practice experience at a firm first.
When Jones hires attorneys for the company’s law department, he typically looks for candidates with a few years’ experience — although he recalls a few in-house law departments interviewing on-campus when he attended law school. They are few and far between.
Unlike Jones, Farrell spent more time in solo practice before going in-house, although she did practice with a large firm early on in her career. Solos and small-firm lawyers should seek out small-business clients, as she did, to serve as “outside general counsel.”
Farrell said, “My general practice gave me a really broad base of experience that has served me very well.
For many in-house jobs, you deal with so many different areas, and had I just been a corporate lawyer at a large firm, I wouldn’t know anything about real estate, estate planning, or probate.”
Farrell holds an undergraduate business degree and said it’s been useful on the job.
But it’s not essential. Barbara J. Swan, general counsel for Alliant Energy in Madison, said her bachelor’s was in history. When she hires for her legal department, what matters most to Swan is “a curious mind.” If necessary, advanced education can come later. That’s what Patricia M. Hanz did, earning her M.B.A. after going in-house. Her bachelor’s, however, was in sociology — a surprisingly practical degree for her job as assistant general counsel at Briggs & Stratton Corporation in Milwaukee.
“It’s the study of people in groups,” Hanz said, “and I think it was great background for going in-house because, especially on the business side, one of the things you need to be in tune to is the various interactions between people in different departments, priorities and competing concerns. It’s all about listening, watching and communication.”
Networking and Recruiters
Networking and paying close attention to the job market are also important, said Lisa Martinez, corporate counsel at Bucyrus International Inc. in South Milwaukee.
“No one’s going to call you and say, ‘I have a great in-house job for you.’ A few people do that because they’ve built a relationship with a business client. But that probably won’t happen for a new attorney. So you need to look for those opportunities. Be flexible, and participate in as many different activities in the community as you can. For example, I sat on a board of a nonprofit and learned so much about business.”
Farrell whole-heartedly agreed: “It’s all about the network. It’s about talking to people, and letting them know what you want to do and what you’re good at — making and maintaining strong relationships, and never burning a bridge.”
To land her job, Farrell used networking and working with a recruiter, Jamie Pratt of Spano Pratt Executive Search in Milwaukee. Do your due diligence before signing on with a recruiter, she urged. As for Pratt, she was very pleased.
“I thought it was so helpful,” Farrell said,” because I could get more information — things you won’t find on a website — about the culture and the people. I could ask the dumb questions to the recruiter that I’d never ask on an interview….
“I’d go into the interview, come out, she’d give me feedback and advice, and I’d be even more prepared for the second time around.”
There are a number of themes to stress when being interviewed, said Jerome D. Okarma, general counsel for Johnson Controls Inc. in Milwaukee.
For starters, if the company is looking for a generalist, don’t emphasize your skills as “the world’s greatest specialist.” Moreover, demonstrate as much knowledge as possible about the company’s business and competitors.
Okarma also looks for lawyers who can build relationships, and who can “calibrate the resources to the risk involved.”
He explained, “Some of the brightest people that I’ve ever worked with have had to find other opportunities, because they have trouble calibrating the risk, and how much time, money, and energy needs to go into this particular legal issue. But we’re not staffed to do that and that’s not our culture,” he said.
“It’s like treating the money you’re spending as if it were your own.”