Ten Things: Looking for a New In-House Job

I do a lot of coaching of in-house lawyers and one question I am often asked is “should I look for a new job?”  From experience, I understand that deciding to look for a new position is one of the hardest decisions an in-house lawyer has to make.  There are many articles discussing moving from law firms to in-house and vice versa, but few – if any – on the decision that most frequently faces in-house lawyers, i.e., when is it time to move on to another in-house position?  Followed closely by “if so, how do I go about it?”  In the past, in-house lawyers pretty much stuck with one company for their entire career (e.g., I spent 20+ years with my first company).  Today, that type of longevity is often the exception.  It is far more common (maybe even expected) for in-house lawyers to move around on their own volition to several different companies.  There are many reasons why such a move may – or may not – make sense.  Ultimately, you do not want to be in a new job for three months only to regret your decision with a bitterness only found on Johnny Cash albums.  Avoiding such a sad state of affairs means the decision to move on is not something you make on a whim.  A lot of work and thinking must go into your decision-making process.  This edition of “Ten Things” walks you through some of the things to consider when thinking about moving to a new in-house job:

1.  Why do you want to move?  The first thing you need to think about is the “why.”  Why do you want to leave your current job?  Is it a lack of responsibility or opportunity for advancement? Money is almost always a factor.  Potentially, it is because you have a boss that is a total butthead.  Regardless, keep in mind that there needs to be a significant and material reason why you want to leave.  Getting yelled at once sucks but that or a few “bad” days are probably not enough of a reason to start looking around.  Like everyone, I thought about leaving my job from time-to-time.  I always looked at it as a two-part question:  do I like what I do and do I like who I work with?  If the answer to both of those is “yes,” then think long and hard about moving on because it is tough to find a job where the answer to both is “yes.”  Another question to ask yourself is whether you are doing enough to make yourself happy in your current position.  Are you taking control of your career or are you waiting for someone to magically recognize your awesomeness and reward you with riches and glory?  Are you raising your hand and asking for the cool projects, or just hoping your number is called?  Are you impatient for a promotion but only at the beginning of your career?  Simply put, some of your dissatisfaction can be remedied by you (or time).  Just have an honest conversation with yourself about why you want to move and feel confident that you have done what you could to remedy whatever is making you feel like moving on.

2.  Is the grass really greener?  Now for the $25,000 question – will it really be better if you move on?  You need to make sure you know the answer to this question before heading out the door.  First, have you tried just asking for what it is you want?  Believe or not, that actually works.  Next, is it possible that things might improve at your current job? If that is a real possibility, add that to your calculus.  Ultimately, you need to set out (I recommend writing it down) exactly what you are looking for in a job.  What is it that you want but are lacking in your current role?  This will be the north star of your search.  As part of your interview process, you should formulate questions to ask potential new employers so you do not end up right back where you are now.  A “quick fix” like moving to a new job is not always the answer. As you move forward with the process, be sure to compare apples-to-apples when considering a new position.  Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Read the job description closely.  Does it match what the potential new employer is telling you in interviews and other conversations?  If not, make sure you get everything in writing including a description of your job that matches what they are telling you.
  • How does the commute compare?
  • Will you be traveling more?
  • Do you have to move to a new city? Will your new employer pay for relocation costs? Is the cost of living index higher, lower, the same where you are looking to go?
  • How do the benefits compare?  Look at salary, yearly bonus, 401K, equity grants (upfront and future), employee stock purchase programs, education reimbursement, charity donation matches, other benefits, flexibility, work/life balance, work from home opportunities, and so forth.
  • Is there a signing bonus with your new company?  Are you leaving bonus and equity awards on the table at your current employer by walking away – will your new employer try to make you whole?  If possible, you should time your search/leaving to start after key financial incentives at your current company vest or are paid out.
  • Is the physical office space nice, located in a good area, will you have an office or is it an open floor plan (i.e., is it conducive to good legal work)?  In other words, will the new office be a plus or a minus?
  • Are you getting a raise in base salary?  Salary is not everything but I imagine someone would have to be pretty miserable to make a move to another in-house department for the same or less in salary (unless the equity offer was substantial – though as my wife often said back in the good old days, “You can’t eat equity.”).  If your reason for leaving is money, do not leave your current job for just a small salary bump.  Make it worth your while or stay put because the disruption from moving is likely not worth it.
  • Do you understand what your career path will be?  Do you have the opportunity to stretch yourself and learn new skills?
  • Where is your boss located?  Will they be in the office near you or remote?  It makes a big difference sometimes.
  • What is the “vibe” in the office?  Does it feel energetic and fun/interesting, or does it feel like a tomb?  It depends on what you are looking for but make sure the vibe matches your needs.

3.  Build up your presence.  Sometimes the easiest way to find a new job is when you are not looking, i.e., when they come to you.  If you want to give yourself more opportunities to be “discovered” consider beefing up your presence in the legal community.  For online, the place to start is with your LinkedIn profile.  Make sure you have one and that it is current.  Maximize the opportunity to tout your skills and experience along with any significant achievements, certifications, etc.  For more on building up your LinkedIn presence, click here.  Be sure to join different in-house groups on LinkedIn and post articles/comment frequently.  People notice when you do.  Likewise, get active on Twitter and consider starting a blog on a topic that interests you and one that can bring others searching for your skillset to your door.  Get active with your local bar as well as the local chapter of the ACC and/or other organizations, including joining committees and taking leadership positions.  In addition to building your network, this can all be very impressive to people looking at your resume, interviewing you, or when touting you as the right person for a job.

4.  Prepare a kick-ass resume.  Regardless of how recently you updated your resume (and you should have a current resume on hand at all times), spend some quality time on it before you start your job search.  This is your “first impression” and half-assing it will come back to haunt you.  First, make sure it is current.  Second, make sure there are no typos or other errors and that the formatting, fonts, margins, etc. are all consistent.  A sloppy resume reflects very poorly on you.  Third, keep it to one page or two pages maximum.  I always found resumes that were three, four or five pages long off-putting.  Get the key information down on paper and the rest you can bring up during the interview.  Another tip: you do not have to use the same resume for every application.  You can tailor versions to use depending on the job you are applying for.  Here are a few resources to help you with preparing or updating your resume:

You should also customize your cover letter to the specific job you are applying for.  A generic cover letter looks and reads like, well, a generic cover letter and shows that your enthusiasm for the job is low, as is the amount of effort you are willing to commit. Most importantly, keep it short.  No one wants to read a short novel about why you are interested in the job.

5.  Keep your search private.  It almost seems like I should not have to put this one on the list but I have been constantly surprised by people who fail to do this – usually to their detriment (i.e., shown the door by their current employer).  If you are going to look, be smart about it.  Do not use company resources or company email for your search (and if you are job searching using your company email, potential employers will think you’re an idiot).  Do not tell co-workers about your plans.  They will, in some manner, let it slip that you are looking.  Schedule interviews early or late in the day so you do not disrupt your actual work.  Better yet, schedule interviews on weekends or in the evenings or, if all else fails, just take a day off.  And do not wear a suit or “interview” clothes to the office unless it is part of how you regularly dress for work.  It’s a dead giveaway that you are interviewing.  Lastly, when you are interviewing, keep the attorney-client privilege in mind when answering questions about your greatest accomplishment or a project you are really proud of.  They already know who the client is, so talking in detail about things that are not public and otherwise privileged can be a problem (and an ethics violation).

6.  Do not bluff.  If you are going to walk out the door and into a new position that is fine.  But do not use the fact that you “might” walk out the door as leverage for a better salary or whatever.  You may find that if you say that you are thinking of leaving, the response is something like “Well, that makes this a bit easier…” And then all hell breaks loose in your life.  Bottom line: have your new position lined up before you tell anyone at the company about leaving.  Assuming you have an offer in hand, what do you do if the company makes an offer to keep you, e.g., a substantial salary raise, equity, new title or something else that makes it enticing to stick around?  First, consider whether what they are offering you truly resolves whatever is making you want to leave in the first place.  While it is nice to be “wanted,” if you are going to come into the office on Monday facing the same things that made you want to leave in the first place you really have not fixed anything.  Second, just know that if you play the leaving card and accept an offer to stay you will likely be “suspect” as someone with a foot out the door and management will also feel that they have taken care of you for good bit so don’t expect any additional big pay increases, promotions, or whatever for a while.  Third, think hard about leaving your new employer in the lurch by jilting them just after they decided on you and you accepted.  While it is not unusual for someone to decide to stay put, it is bad form nonetheless.  In addition, if you used a recruiter to help you find the job, you are probably persona non grata with them now, i.e., they will not think of you for future jobs and probably will not return your calls.

7.  Look into the reputation of the company and the legal department.  Let’s say you have gotten an interview or two and you are very interested in the new company and the new position.  Before going further, it is time to really do some digging.  You certainly do not want to move to a company that has a reputation for treating workers poorly or for cutting corners when it comes to doing business the right way.  The same is true for their legal department. Start with an online search and read as many articles about the company as you can.  What is its reputation generally?  Is it facing any government investigations or lawsuits that would imply a culture that is not to your liking?  Would you be proud to work at the new company?  Discreetly ask around about the legal department.  Is it held in high regard?  Do people stick around or it there a revolving door?  Don’t put a lot of stock into things like Glassdoor.  Typically, it is people with a bone to pick who post.  Happy employees are less inclined to go online and write about it.  Second, do some research about the financial condition of the company and the likelihood of disruption to its business model. If available, read their financial statements and quarterly/annual reports for insight into risks. Make sure you understand how the company makes money.  Is this company rock-solid or the next WeWork exploring the boundaries of creative accounting?  Are there rumors of bankruptcy, missed loan payments, or over-reliance on one customer who may be stolen away?  In other words, will they have a business in five years?  Do your homework.  Unless you are prepared – and compensated – for the risk, the last thing you want to have happened is to join a new company only to face a layoff (or worse) just a few months later.

8.  Make it a family decision.  Unless you are single, here is something many of us often overlook: the decision to change jobs affects your entire family, not just you.  Your spouse, significant other, and/or children will all be impacted and should be considered as part of any decision.  Are you going to uproot your family and move across the country?  That is not a decision that you announce as a fait accompli.  Do you have a child in their last year of high school?  Think about the impact on them.  Will you be traveling more or will your commute change to the point where you will be spending significantly more time away from your family?  All of these things matter and impact your (and your family’s) quality of life.  Meaning, if you are seriously thinking about moving on from your current job bring your family into the loop as appropriate.  And sometimes you’re just going to have to lump a bad situation for a while longer for the good of your family.

9.  Where to look.  If you are ready to start looking (or even if you just want to know “what’s out there”) you need to know where to look for in-house jobs.  There are basically three ways to go about it and they are not mutually exclusive:

  • Work with a legal recruiter (or “head hunter” in some circles).  There are plenty out there.  Click here for a list.  Just note that, for the most part, they do not actively seek out positions for you.  Rather, they wait until something crosses their desk and then decide if you would be a good fit or not.  They may actively seek you out probably due to your LinkedIn profile, which is why it is important to have a good online presence as discussed above.
  • Network, i.e., many of the best tips about jobs come from people you already know.  Either they know about a job opening or someone has approached them about who do they know that might be interested.  You need to be cautious here because if you start telling people you are on the market word may get back to your current employer and that is probably not what you want to have happened.  So, it is better to just be friendly, outgoing, and memorable.  Hand out business cards like mad and be willing to connect with people on LinkedIn.  Being willing to help others and do favors so as to generate goodwill within your network (or even with strangers).  Building a network takes time and work but it truly is how many in-house jobs are filled before they ever get announced.
  • Online job sites.  Over the years, I have kept a growing list of sites I think are worth using for an in-house job search.  The key here is having a good resume to post.  And, if you have not used an online job site in a while, be prepared for a lot of work to enter all of your details (even though you are repeating what is in the resume you already uploaded).  One trick is to have all the information you are typically asked to post in a Word document and then you can cut and paste without having to retype everything when – inevitably – one of the sites will lock up and you will lose everything you entered and must start over again (sigh).  Here is my list of the top job sites for in-house positions.  These are U.S.-focused though some provide the ability to look for jobs outside the U.S.  Otherwise, just search for “in-house legal jobs in [country]” and you will get sites relevant to your location:

10.  Resign properly.  You may not have it top of mind but “how” you leave is pretty important.  While you may have landed a new job that provides everything you have been looking for (or are trying to escape from) now is not the time to take the low road.  Be a “good leaver” as someday you might need that person you flipped the bird to on the way out the door.  In the words of my hero Ron Burgundy, “Stay classy.”  This means several things.  First, tell your manager you are leaving as soon as possible and let them know your exact timeline.  If you are smart, you are not walking out the door tomorrow or even within a week.  They may show you the door but the better plan is staying on for a few weeks before you leave.  This will give you time to prepare a good transition memo (but try to close out as many projects as you can before you leave).  If time permits (and if they want you to) be open to helping interview your replacement or training them if it’s someone internal who can start getting up to speed right away.  After you tell your manager, tell HR.  They will likely have a set process for you to complete including returning any company property, your badge, and sitting down for an exit interview.  If you are offered the latter, be constructive with any criticism.  Do not trash the company, your manager, or whoever else may be on your “payback” list.  Remember, keep it classy.  Consider sending some thank you notes to people who helped you with your career or with whom you really enjoyed working.  And, while it is okay to download or forward any personal emails or materials, now is not the time to start downloading forms, memos, or any other company-owned materials.  Be sure to respect any post-employment restrictive covenants in your employment agreement (e.g., non-solicitation).  Finally, and I cannot recommend this one high enough, take some time off before you start your new job, at least a week and ideally two.  No responsibilities for two weeks? When will you ever get the chance to do something like that again?

*****

Looking for a new job is a scary and exhausting task.  Be sure you have a good reason for starting the process and, when you find something, that the situation will truly be better than what you have in hand today.  That said, there is no reason to be miserable in your job.  While you may have to stick it out for various reasons, when the right opportunity comes along jump on it.  If there is one thing I have learned over 30 years at this job is that if the company thinks it is time to part ways with you, it will.  The days of lifetime employment are long over, so always put what is best for you and your family ahead of everything else.  You need to take a pro-active role in your career development and job satisfaction, but it is also up to the company and your manager to continually do their best to keep you around.  If they aren’t, it may be a hint.

Sterling Miller

November 19, 2019

Big news!  Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2 came out this month!  It’s my second book based on this blog series.  As the ABA says, “All in-house lawyers need to own this book!”  Or maybe that was my mom…

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I have three published three other books: Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies, The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, coaching, CLEs, and consulting.

Follow me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net.

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