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How Much Experience Is Needed to Work In-House?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

You want to work in-house. You've always wanted to work in-house. But how much experience do you need before moving in to the general counsel's office?

While the traditional path is still common -- spend a few years at a firm, then transition -- many companies are starting to open their law departments to attorneys with a wider range of experience, including attorneys straight out of law school.

The Traditional Way: Paying Your Dues at a Firm

The road most traveled by leads through three to five years of firm practice. Most in-house counsel will have spent a minimum of three years working at a big firm before switching over to the corporate side. There's a reason for this. In-house legal departments are often small; lawyers need to know their stuff when they enter the door. The general idea is that there's less time to learn on the job and that a few years at a prestigious firm will provide enough training and experience for in-house practice.

If you want to end up in-house, spending a few years in a firm is your best bet. You'll get bonus points if those years are spent practicing a relevant area of law.

The most common way in-house isn't the only one, however. Many in-house lawyers, even general counsel, are hired based on their experience in business, not law. "I Am the Law," a podcast by Law School Transparency, recently featured Jessica Morgan, vice president of Legal at Boulder Brands. Morgan studied business and worked for seven or eight years before going to law school at the University of Colorado--Boulder. She used that business experience to get herself in-house, starting in a "quasi-legal" position that melded both business and law before leveraging that into a full in-house position at Boulder Brands.

Straight From Law School

Don't have a lot of legal experience or business experience? There are still many companies that will hire you on. Companies are realizing that they can bring in their own new, flexible lawyers instead of spending $300 an hour on outside counsel work handled by first year associates. Take Maria Musolino, for example. Musolino became a deputy GC with a mortgage company straight out of law school, without years of prior business experience.

"They wanted someone younger who they could pay less," she says, but it wasn't just salary savings that got her the job. Musolino credits her law school internships in corporate legal departments with helping her land the job, as well as specializing in a niche industry and area of law.

So, while years of law firm experience are typical, they aren't the only way to get in-house these days.

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