Cross the Bridge: 10 Tips for a Successful Transition

January 19, 2015

meeting boardroom professionalsIn 1999, I left private practice to become General Counsel for a national mortgage bank.  I was very excited about going in-house and really enjoyed my new role. I soon believed I could spend the rest of my career at my company. However, in 2005 the mortgage markets crashed, my company ceased operations soon thereafter, and I found myself looking for a new position.

After being in-house for nearly seven years, returning to private practice was intimidating and challenging. However, while in-house and during my first few years of private practice, I took several steps which helped me successfully transition from inhouse to private practice. This article identifies these steps and other steps I wish I would have taken.

Actions to Take While In-House

  1. Develop Good Relationships with the Firms You Use. While in-house, Dykema Gossett was my “go to” law-firm. Over the years, I worked with and became friends with many of Dykema’s attorneys. More importantly, these attorneys got to know me, my work habits, my skills, and my judgment. These relationships enabled me to discuss my planned transition well before I left my company, helped me in the interview process, and helped me build a successful practice at Dykema.
  2. Network. While in-house, I was active in professional organizations such as the ABA and the ACC, I developed relationships with numerous professionals that I speak with today, and I remained in contact with clients that I worked with before going in-house. Many of these contacts became clients and business sources. Had I not joined Dykema, these contacts could have been possible employers. I did not develop these relationships thinking they would be helpful if I left my company; however, fostering these relationships was one of the best things I did to ensure a successful transition from in-house to private practice.
  3. Develop Your Technical Skills. In-house lawyers can lose their technical skills, particularly if routinely outsourcing work. Admittedly, it is difficult to bring litigation or transactional work in-house, especially when managerial or other executive duties interfere. I had similar challenges and, in hindsight, I wish I had done more to maintain my technical skills. Unfortunately, some of my technical skills became “rusty” and, after joining my firm, I spent more time than I wanted to refreshing these skills. Nevertheless, there are many ways in-house lawyers can maintain their technical skills including CLE seminars and pro-bono assignments.
  4. Avoid Complacency. I never expected the mortgage industry to collapse or that this collapse would force me to change careers. Do not assume your current position will last forever. Hindsight is 20-20 and I wish I would have done more to prepare for an eventuality that became a reality. To avoid being unprepared, focus on increasing your value, improving your skills and marketability, and enhancing your reputation, all of which will ease your transition to private practice if you make such a move.

Finding the Right Job

  1. Search Early and Contact People You Know. Candidates are typically more attractive to prospective employers when they are still employed. I did not wait until the doors closed at my company to start looking for a job. Even before the magnitude of the mortgage collapse became apparent, I inquired about new employment opportunities and spoke with many law firms and companies. When I finally decided to leave, I was able to join the firm I wanted to join without a gap in my employment.
  2. Prepare a Business Plan. Develop a plan that highlights your strengths, motivations, and ability to help your prospective firm. A resume tells what you have done whereas a business plan tells what you will do. I prepared a business plan that succinctly identified my prospective clients and contacts, how and when I would convert these prospects into paying clients, and my path to commercial success. Preparing such a plan allowed me to show my prospective employers what I “brought to the table” and, more importantly, forced me to think objectively and realistically how I would succeed in private practice.
  3. Be Realistic. As general counsel of a national mortgage bank, I earned a good salary, had job security, and was generally well respected. It was difficult losing this security, this compensation, and these accolades. Unfortunately, despite my contacts, experience, and business plan, I really did not have much too immediately offer my new firm. Accepting my new reality made it easier for me to accept a lower paying position with a better platform. No question, more money up front would have been nice, however, this extra pay would have come with greater expectations – and greater pressure – to immediately perform. Instead, I accepted a performance based compensation system which allowed me to focus on developing my practice. Being realistic about my initial contribution to the firm, and accepting a compensation structure that rewarded me for performance and not promises, demonstrated confidence and pragmatism, made me a more attractive candidate to the firm, and allowed me time to build my practice.

Once Hired

  1. Emphasize Your In-House Experience. In-house experience teaches a lawyer many things that being in a firm may not. Hiring lawyers, working within budgets, working closely with non-lawyers, understanding what potential clients need to make them successful within their organizations, and being a ‘business insider’ are invaluable skills and experiences that in-house lawyers learn and which even seasoned law firm lawyers may miss. I utilized my in-house experience of business operations, industry trends, risk tolerance, and translating legalities into commercially understandable terms to attract new clients. Informing my in-house contacts about my in-house career, particularly where I had a skill-set or industry expertise related to their business, gave me immediate credibility which often formed the basis of a client relationship.
  2. Market Yourself. Law school does not teach us how to market. Many of us enjoy inhouse practice because we do not have to sell. For better or worse, marketing is a big part of law firm success. One thing I had to learn was becoming comfortable marketing myself and asking for business. As a former in-house attorney, one big selling point to new clients was my ability to understand the needs and pressures faced by in-house counsel. Also, to get over my fear of asking for business, I read several books on marketing and reminded myself that the worse thing a potential client can say is “No”. In the end, learning to build and maintain relationships, all as part of getting comfortable with the business of law, were arguably as important to my success as being technically competent.
  3. Be Patient. Rome was not built in a day and unless your prior employer immediately fills your plate, it may take years for you to perform at desired levels. My first couple years in private practice were far less productive than I had hoped. However, partly because my firm paid me based on performance and did not pressure me to produce at set levels, I had time to focus on my practice and execute on my business plan. During my first two years at Dykema, I learned about the firm, its practice groups, and its attorneys, spent time reconnecting with old contacts, and worked on my technical expertise. It took a couple years, but things materialized and my practice has grown ever since.

Transitioning from the security of an in-house position to a law firm was challenging. However, working in a law firm offered me rewards associated with building and maintaining a practice. If you make the transition to private practice – whether by choice or necessity – advanced preparation, being realistic, and patience are keys to a successful transition.