Monday, July 02, 2012

Book Review: "A Lawyer's Guide to Getting a Corporate Legal Position In-House"

When David Parnell - co-founder of NY-based legal recruiting firm Edward, Anthony & Steele - asked me to review his new book, "A Lawyer's Guide to Getting a Corporate Legal Position In-House," I was intrigued.  I guessed it wouldn't endorse the method I used as a third-year lawyer to get my first in-house position back in 1996 - answering a "help wanted" ad in the legal newspaper - but I was curious to see if it would address some of the missteps I've seen wannabe in-house attorneys make since.

And it does.  Parnell's book is an excellent resource for attorneys with 2-7 years of experience looking to move in-house.  Here are some of the areas that stand out:

  • A Candid Assessment of In-House Work.  Parnell's focus in on larger organizations, which is the likely landing spot in-house for more junior attorneys. And he doesn't sugar-coat the reality of the work:  There's no guarantee that the hours will be softer, and there's a strong likelihood that the entry-level work in a large legal department will be less interesting (and repetitive) than the varied deal flow at a law firm.  Parnell also takes pains to point out just how competitive it is to get in-house positions.
  • A Tactical Approach.  When hiring for in-house counsel, I can't tell you how many poorly-thought-out, scattershot approaches I've seen by candidates. Parnell lays out a super-methodical approach to seeking in-house work, with a focus on identifying positions that haven't been posted yet.  He takes it down to a detailed, campaign level, complete with creating a "funnel" of 100 targets, sending tailored correspondence and scheduling emails and phone calls.  That kind of tactical focus and plain grunt work is necessary if you want to maximize your chances of landing an in-house job.  It's a ton of effort, but it's very, very effective - largely because so few candidates do it.
  • A Detailed Interview Strategy.  Parnell recommends a lot of interview prep, to the point of writing answers to likely questions out.  This is sound advice, and too often observed in the breach.  Parnell also recommends doing background research on the potential employer.  This is a point that needs greater emphasis; I would expect anyone interviewing for a legal position to have an in-depth view of my business and its competitive space, and be able to ask intelligent questions about it.  Again, an area that is too often shined on by candidates.  The book also includes an excellent and highly-detailed section on negotiating compensation.
There are also a couple of areas that I would caution readers about:
  • It's Not for All Attorneys.  Parnell's book is, as mentioned, focused on attorneys with about 2-7 years experience seeking jobs in large organizations.  This makes sense, as that's the deepest pool for junior attorneys to fish in.  However, if you have more experience, or are applying for jobs in smaller organizations, your approach will need to change a bit.  Those in such a position could still benefit greatly from Parnell's detailed "campaign" approach to contacting potential employers.  But it's important to go much deeper - to research each company you are approaching and send correspondence that directly addresses its needs and how you can help.  To do this properly, you probably need to go after a smaller pool than the 100 employers Parnell recommends for starting a campaign. And it's a lot of work.  But I guarantee you it's far, far more effective than mass-mailing a bunch of generic cover letters and resumes. 
  • Interviewing Psychology.  Parnell is into linguistics and psychology, and he spends a fair bit of time in the book exploring the psychology of interviewing: first impressions, matching and mirroring, conforming, etc.  This is all important stuff to know, but I would go further than Parnell does in cautioning candidates about the dangers of artificially changing their personalities in interviews.  The people who need the most help in these areas are also the likeliest to screw up by actively trying to "not be themselves" in an interview.  I've seen this happen a number of times, and it's always a train wreck.  In-house employers tend to have very finely-tuned bullshit detectors.  Be prepared - be uber prepared.  But be yourself (or, at most, a somewhat-friendlier version of yourself).  Attempting a psychological makeover in an interview is far likelier to backfire than yield any real benefits.
And yes, the book is published by the ABA, so it's not much to look at.  And it costs $100 ($75 for ABA members).  But this is your career we're talking about here. There is a gold mine of information in the book for any biglaw associate with serious dreams of moving in-house.  It provides a tactical roadmap to maximize the chances of finding a position, and contains enough truth-telling about the corporate world that some readers will decide that staying in a firm is just fine.  And even those looking at smaller companies or specialized positions would benefit from Parnell's advice about running a job-acquisition campaign and how to prep for interviews and comp discussions.   


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