Career Audit

In the House

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Five years ago, Mari Valenzuela was in private practice, asking corporate counsel for direction about what their company needed from her law firm. Today she’s the one law firm practitioners go to for guidance.

As a corporate counsel for Microchip Technology Inc. of Chandler, Ariz., she sets priorities for the company’s outside lawyers and reviews their work. Valenzuela’s job is to develop and implement an organized plan for getting her company’s legal work done without “overlawyering.”

Instead of striving to create a flawless brief or memorandum for a specific case–like she did at her law firm–she spends a typical day juggling many projects.

The move involved a pay cut, but, she says, “I’ve never regretted it, ever.” Valenzuela likes the focus on people, and she has time to participate in community activities.

“I’m involved with outside bar associations and charitable foundations,” she says. “It’s awesome.”

In-House Allure

Many attorneys have recognized the appeal of in-house work; consequently it’s harder to find a job. Those who succeed generally spend years in practice, developing the legal skills and network of contacts to springboard into a corporate counsel position.

But perhaps the best path leading in-house is to do a good job for your law firm’s corporate clients. Companies often offer in-house positions to outside counsel who impress.

“Just be really great at what you do,” says Jolene A. Yee, who works for Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif. “Clients will recognize that you do very good work and will ask you to go in-house. Most of the people I know who have gone in-house have gotten in that way,” adds Yee, former co-chair of the Corporate Counsel Committee of the ABA Business Law Section.

To many attorneys, even that’s a challenge. They sometimes forget that people skills are as important as legal expertise. Failing to understand and focus on what the client wants is a common problem, corporate counsel say. Competent lawyers can turn off a corporate client by writing a 17-page memo when a phone call or face to face conversation would be cheaper and more effective.

Likewise, private practitioners often mistakenly emphasize why a particular project is risky, rather than looking for ways to minimize the risks and help the client get the job done.

In general, “just anticipate what we might need,” says Michael Clarke, chief compliance officer for Medco Health Solutions Inc., based in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “That is extremely valuable.”

For example, says Clarke, some outside lawyers don’t understand his role in preparing briefs. He says he offers significant direction but doesn’t need to review drafts. “We don’t want to draft the brief, or help draft the brief,” he says.

Maintain Professionalism

Not minding your manners can be a problem, too. Valenzuela was turned off when an outside lawyer representing her company behaved too aggressively at the negotiation table. “It was embarrassing,” she says. “We were working toward a business deal, and it was a little too litigious. I wouldn’t use that attorney again.”

Most companies want a minimum of four or five years in private practice. Also helpful, Clarke says, is work as a government litigator, especially on the prosecution side, because of the valuable experience it offers in compliance matters.

Equally helpful is time actually spent working in-house. Some law firms offer programs that place private practitioners in corporate counsel offices for two to six months, Yee says. Intended to promote client relations, these programs also offer private practitioners entrée to in-house work.

Even when a law firm doesn’t have a formal program, it may be possible to create one informally, Yee says. “If you’re in a firm that doesn’t have a program like that and you have some time to spend with your clients, you can offer them a discounted rate to let you come into their business and do some work for them to give you an opportunity to learn their business.”

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