A Conversation with Elena Kagan: How to Approach and Nail Your In-House Interview


Earlier this week I heard Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan give a talk at Berkeley Law  where she offered career advice to lawyers and law students and told them, when considering an alternate career path, to “just jump in.” Many attorneys want to make the jump in-house but are so risk-averse that they have a hard time making the move. What they don’t realize, Kagan opined, is that by virtue of their prior experience – ie, their prestigious law school and a few years at a law firm under their belt – they already have a secure safety net under them.

So go ahead, take her seasoned advice and try something new. That’s what Kagan did throughout her career. Her resume includes first female dean of Harvard Law School, Associate White House Counsel in the Clinton administration and finally Supreme Court Justice, but she pointed out that what we find on her resume are the jobs she got, not the ones she didn’t make the cut for.

I often get calls from attorneys who have had several in-house interviews but haven’t been offered a role yet and want advice on how to proceed. Kagan reminded us that, even in her impressive career, “when a door closes, a window opens.” She encouraged us all to try different things and take risks; stating that many lawyers have a career path in mind that they don’t want to deviate from, but it’s taking the road less traveled that leads us to finding that perfect legal career we went to law school for to begin with. I for one, never thought I would end up in recruiting, but after working at a top New York law firm, in-house and for smaller firms doing real estate and wine law, I stumbled upon my perfect fit “legal career” in legal recruiting.

I speak to a lot of candidates who get turned down for in-house jobs because of either their background or their performance in the highly competitive interview process.

Here are a few tips to help you navigate the process:

Timing. Many candidates struggle with when to start considering in-house positions. The answer is that, for a legal/corporate counsel level position, the right time is probably three to five years, but in reality lawyers can move in-house at any point in their career. Companies like HP hire law students to start straight out of law school and partners at law firms sometimes transition to roles at companies including to head up legal departments.

Personality & Enthusiasm. While this is important for any lateral interview, companies tend to be pickier about getting someone who fits in with the company culture; whereas law firms want the same but tend to focus more on credentials, intelligence and work ethic. Unlike firms, companies need someone who can do much more than sit behind a desk and churn documents. They are looking for candidates who can interact with their business team and board of directors. Be sure to read up on the company and anything you can find online about working there to get a sense of the qualities they may be looking for. Coming up with a tailored list of questions about the company and the role also demonstrates you have done your research and are not just there out of desperation to get out of the big firm grind. Also, as you are sitting in the interviewer’s office, look around and see if you can find some commonality to discuss. Maybe you both went to the same college, have children of the same age, or like to travel.

Going into an interview with enthusiasm is important. It is even more critical when interviewing for a position at a company. In-house attorneys tend to be more passionate about what they do than law firm attorneys and they want you to feel the same.

Flexibility. It goes without saying that you should take a close look at the position description before the interview to get a better sense of what the job entails, but keep in mind that the positions are often drafted by the HR team who may not fully understand the scope of the job duties. I recommend finding out more about the position early on in the interview process and tailoring your interview responses accordingly.

Even if you were more of a specialist in your previous position, you can find ways to demonstrate your ability to be flexible. Coming up with a few examples ahead of time is a good strategy. Maybe you recently had a project thrown at you that was outside the scope of your day-to-day practice. For example, when I was a junior corporate attorney and work slowed down in my department, I was given a litigation assignment where I had to draft a memo on case law, something I hadn’t done since law school. Despite feeling out of practice at drafting memos, the litigation partner appreciated my work and continued to give me projects until the corporate work picked up again.

In-house attorneys often have to juggle many more projects at once than firm attorneys and so demonstrating your time management skills can be critical.

Another aspect of flexibility that often comes up when interviewing for an in-house job is compensation. Generally, the candidates we work with have a sense of the compensation going into the interview but sometimes the interviewer will ask specific questions about compensation expectations in the middle of the interview. My recommendation is to say you’re flexible to the extent that you can be. You can always negotiate compensation on the back end but you don’t want to be passed over for a position because someone else is willing to take a larger pay cut. Many companies offer stock options, RSU grants, and other benefits that can make up for the lower base salary. This is where working with a recruiter comes in handy, as we are able to act as an intermediary and set both parties’ expectations since we have a better sense of the current legal market. If you do have an outside recruiter you are working with, I would always recommend deferring to them to help you navigate and negotiate your compensation and benefits package.

Business Acumen. Demonstrating an ability to make business decisions and interact wisely with various teams and product lines you may come across in a company is key. While law firm interviews tend to be easier than most candidates anticipate, companies are usually harder on candidates in this respect. Many companies give hypotheticals and some give personality tests as well. Companies like Google can have more than five rounds of interviews. While it’s impossible to be fully prepared for every scenario, you should think about the type of work you will be handling and how you would tackle it before you show up to the interview so you can be better prepared to answer complex hypotheticals that you may not have encountered since law school.

I’ve heard many company clients tell me the reason the candidate didn’t get the job was not that they weren’t liked or qualified, but because they lacked the confidence that they felt would be necessary to say no to the business teams. Even if it doesn’t come up in the interview, if you have an example or two you can share of a time you had to be forceful in telling a client what to do, that could help you to overcome this common hurdle.

While there is no surefire way to land a coveted position in-house, being prepared and knowing what companies typically look for is always helpful.  In addition to preparing for your interview, the experience you get at your law firm can help prepare you for a smooth transition in-house. Sometimes I counsel candidates on transitioning practice areas earlier on in their careers to prepare them for a move in-house down the line. Feel free to reach out to if you’d like to learn more about the transition in-house:

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