Dear Law Students

A few weeks ago I talked to a group of law students about what I do as part of a series on alternative careers. Being in-house counsel is considered an alternative career. The traditional career is law firm employment. During preparation for my talk I made a discovery that surprised even me. I looked at a sampling of classmates I’d graduated law school with and in that admittedly unscientific sampling more of my classmates were in alternative careers than were working for a law firm. Yet alternative careers aren’t a strong focus in law school, the focus is more on law firm placement.

It gave me the idea to do a Q&A with a few of my contacts who are in alternative careers. I asked questions designed to get information I wish somebody had told me when I was in law school. To be helpful the answers had to be truthful so I offered anonymity to anyone who wanted it. Everyone agreed to participate.  This is the first of two blog posts in which I’ll publish the Q&A’s, including my own.

Name: Michelle Fleming

Title: General Counsel

Employer: Digium, Inc.  (telecommunications company)

1. What does your role entail?

I’m General Counsel of a private telecommunications company. As General Counsel I handle contract drafting, manage the trademark portfolio, manage compliance such as export compliance training and training around privacy regulations such as CPNI, and handle all day to day legal matters. I worked at headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama for 6 years before moving up north when my husband took a job in New York. I’ve worked remotely for the last 3 years for the same company and travel back as needed.

2. What was your career path? What led you to your current position?

My undergrad degree was criminal justice. I went into law school planning to do criminal defense and did that for the first year following graduation. When you’re fresh out of law school, not at the top of the class ranking, and you’re doing criminal work you rely heavily on appointed cases. I gave it a year and realized appointed cases were not going to go put me on the path to financial independence and while criminal work was interesting, it wasn’t my passion.  I made the worst mistake ever and quit taking appointed cases with no job lined up.  Don’t do that. More on this later. I interviewed hard for a year until I found into my current job where I’ve been for nine years.

3. How did you get interested in the type of law you’re practicing/ work you do?

I didn’t even know corporate counsel jobs even existed until 2006. My law school’s emphasis was on law firm employment and in-house attorneys don’t make an appearance in movies or TV. So when I stopped doing criminal work I initially only searched for work with law firms, DA offices, and Legal Services. Not necessarily because I was really drawn to those places, but because I thought those were the only places lawyers worked.

I was talking to a friend about it and she mentioned I should expand the search to Contract Specialist/Contract Admin positions. I looked in the newspaper and there was an advertisement for a Contract Admin Position.  The title was a little misleading, the job description included contract drafting, trademark enforcement, and asked for business law experience. It was right up my alley. I’ve always been a strong writer and I am that weird person that actually likes reading and revising contracts.  Seriously, I could write contracts all day long. The other parts of the advertisement were dead on as well- it mentioned trademarks also. IP courses were some of my favorites when I was in law school. I had no clue you could get a job doing mostly only the fun (well, what I consider fun) parts of law.  I also thought if you were a lawyer it meant you absolutely had to go argue in court once in awhile.  That was never particularly fun for me.  I don’t have to argue in court anymore. That’s done by outside counsel.  I took on more responsibility as the years went by and the Contract Admin job eventually became a GC position.

4. Do you have advice for law students or graduates who are interested in following the same career path?

You need to move to where the jobs are and odds are your hometown isn’t it.  Join organizations where in-house counsel are to get a lay of the land. The Association of Corporate Counsel is a great organization that has chapters of local in-house attorneys who meet every so often and they host CLEs. It also has templates and other resources you can use.  You should also go to meetup.com to search for groups of in-house lawyers in your area.  Go to CLEs in-house counsel attend.  You probably won’t find them at criminal, real estate, and family law CLEs.  Attend CLEs on intellectual property, license agreements, and other things corporations are interested in.  This is another instance where you may have to travel since your hometown may not offer these types of CLEs.  Some of the classes are offered online but you won’t get the networking benefit or learn as much as you do if you’re there in person.

5. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

It’s a team sport.  Law school can emphasize adversarial situations and even mock negotiations can have an “us vs them” quality.  It’s the same thing in the movies and TV. Lawyers battling it out is what makes for good TV, but it’s not real life unless you’re a litigator.

In the day to day there is no “us vs them” doing in-house work, even in contract negotiations. We’re both trying to get to the same end goal, making the deal happen.  Being an advocate doesn’t necessarily mean being adversarial.

6. If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice after you graduated law school what would it be?

99% of the time, by the time the job advertisement is placed it’s too late. Someone told me that a few years ago and it is so true.

Here is how I thought hiring worked in 2005-2006. Employer decides they want to hire someone. Employer places advertisement. Employer hires from pool of candidates that apply.

That’s not how it works, at least not in my experience in the legal profession. Here is how it works.

Employer decides they want to hire someone. Employer tells acquaintances and starts thinking of people employer has met at events that might be a good fit. Employer places advertisement as a matter of form and might even conduct an interview. Employer hires someone they already knew.  The moral of that story is you need to get out to events where potential employers are so they’ll have you in mind when they think about hiring.  Go to the CLEs or gatherings and participate in the conversations.  When a spot opens up they’ll remember you were knowledgeable on a topic and reach out.

7. What are some of the biggest differences, good or bad, between your current role and working in a more traditional law firm position?

If you’re with a firm you close the file when you’re done advising on the particular issue and usually don’t find out what the ramifications of your advice were, unless that advice was terribly wrong. You also have no way to know the company as well as your client does. I like being in-house because I see the outcome of the contracts I write and the other work I do and I learn from it.  I also like knowing all the nitty gritty of how the company operates and history, those details come into play when I’m revising contracts and structuring compliance processes. Without being able to do a deep dive on the company it’s nearly impossible to know right off the bat what an acceptable level of risk is to them and how to model compliance processes. Outside counsel is at a disadvantage there because they don’t have that in-house knowledge.

The one thing I used to miss about working for a traditional law firm was seeing other lawyers in person every day.   Silicon Valley and NYC are different stories, but in Huntsville there just weren’t many in-house attorneys to talk to or local events where they all met. You had to go Birmingham if you wanted to find a gathering of them, at least when I lived in Huntsville. Of course I had coworkers to hang out with when I was there, but I’m one of the few departments consisting of one person.

That changed when my husband took a job in NY and we moved.  I kept my job and work from my house. I wanted to be sure I didn’t turn into a hermit so I started looking at events and saw there were lots of gatherings for in-house attorneys up here. If I miss hanging out with attorneys or want to hear their thoughts on an issue there are events happening at least once a month I can go to.  You can’t throw a rock and not hit an in-house attorney in NY.  So it all worked out.  If you’re going in-house I’d make sure you move to a place where there are lots of in-house attorneys, not just for the sake of employment but so you have somebody in your shoes to socialize with.

8. Is there anything else, any words of wisdom or sage advice, you would tell law students who are preparing to graduate?

I mentioned corporations hire lawyers they know.  They also use recruiters to hunt for candidates. If they do that they have to pay the recruiting fee so they’re more likely to hire who they know but it does happen.

Recruiters hunt using LinkedIn. If your profile says “John Smith,  J.D. Candidate 2015” they won’t find you. If they do find you, they’ll probably ignore you.  Look at job advertisements for positions you’re interested in and use the qualifications listed in the advertisement to flesh out your LinkedIn profile so it pulls up when recruiters are looking.

Name : Anjali Kamath

Title: General Counsel and Compliance Manager

Employer: BitPay, Inc. (bitcoin merchant payment processor)

1. What does your role entail?

I serve as General Counsel and Compliance Manager of a payment processor that enables merchants to accept bitcoin as a method of payment. As General Counsel I advise on all day to day legal matters as it relates to the company, draft, revise, negotiate and manage all business related contracts, respond to subpoenas/requests from law enforcement, and advise on new products/ventures. As compliance manager I support the compliance team in managing the company’s Anti-Money Laundering Compliance Program.

2. What was your career path? What led you to your current position?

I currently refer to myself as a “legal and compliance professional.” For the past several years I have leveraged my legal background to enter into compliance based positions. Though it’s not a requirement to have a law degree to go in to any compliance field, it’s definitely an attractive feature for a candidate. Compliance requires the analysis and application of regulations to company practices; employers put a great deal of confidence in attorneys to be able to do this successfully. Truthfully, I was recruited by the company. My years of experience in compliance with the addition of my law degree drew them to me.

3. How did you get interested in the type of law you’re practicing/ work you do?

I honestly did not know much about the field of compliance until it came to me. In law school you’re never really told about the nontraditional opportunities that are out there. I initially struggled to find my niche. After a couple of years of working with small general practice law firms I found an in-house position at a financial company. After a year I was offered a joint role of Compliance and Legal Officer. It was a huge learning experience and gave me a great foundation for my career. I built a skill set as a legal and compliance professional that I’ve been able to take and transition into different types of companies over the span of my career.

4. What are some of the best or favorite parts of your job?

If you’re going to be in the field of compliance you definitely have to be comfortable with reading and writing. There’s a lot of reading and reading between the lines, so to speak. So I do enjoy the aspect of my job that requires me to be analytical and problem solve different situations.

5. Do you have advice for law students or graduates who are interested in following the same career path?

I’ve mainly directed my responses to the compliance aspect of my job since I think there’s probably more guidance out there for a General Counsel type role. I think there’s less information geared towards law students/attorneys about compliance related positions. Compliance is definitely complex so it’s a great option for those who continue to seek a challenge. Compliance also requires the delivery of information that may not always be seen as favorable to all. You have to be comfortable with what you have to say not always being received well. It’s important to not take conflict personally.

6. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Never be afraid to ask for what you want. I was actually told this by a recruiter when I hesitated about my salary requirement.

7. If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice after you graduated law school what would it be?

I always think back and wonder if I should have stayed on path to be a “real lawyer,” working for a great firm, going to court. My dad wanted me to be a judge! I would probably put less pressure on myself to fit into these traditional ideas of what as law students we consider lawyers to be.

8. What characteristics/skills do you think it takes for someone to succeed in a role like yours and what can law students do to gain the skills it takes to succeed if they’re in a school that’s focused on placement in law firms?

Compliance requires patience, drive, and attention to detail. You should be able to work well with others and be a good communicator. To succeed you are really taking the skills you’re building in law school of being presented with different fact patterns and understanding how the law applies to those situations. The other half of the job is understanding how the company you are working for operates. I would extend the search beyond law firms and look at how businesses/companies hire. Actually, if you even know you don’t want to pursue a traditional law firm experience, see if your school offers a joint J.D./M.B.A program. That’s one thing I would definitely go back and do.

9. What are some of the biggest differences, good or bad, between your current role and working in a more traditional law firm position?

I did not work long in a traditional law firm position. I have also not worked in a large law firm to make a good comparison. I will say though I enjoy the dynamic of working for a company versus the traditional feel of a law firm. I frequently engage with different departments- operations, marketing, sales, among others. I like the diversity of advising all these different groups on a daily basis.

10. Is there anything else, any words of wisdom or sage advice, you would tell law students who are preparing to graduate?

It’s difficult but don’t lose hope if you did not graduate at the top of your class! There are other opportunities out there you just have to be creative and persistent.

Name: Anonymous

Title: Discovery Consultant

  1. What does your role entail?

Daily I am consulting with clients, generally in-house counsel for large corporations and large law firms, developing and implementing strategies pertaining to their electronic discovery needs.  My company can perform forensic data collections at the point of data origination.  We then host and/or process the data to a convenient and viewable format for the client.  When the client is ready, we can process the data into the format they want to produce to opposing counsel.  We also receive data from opposing counsel and make that viewable for our clients.    

  1. What was your career path? What led you to your current position?

I went to law school wanting to get into estate planning and real estate closings.  The realities of the job market after law school quickly erased any expectation that I had that I would be able to choose what type of law I practiced right out of law school.  I was hired as a contract associate at a small firm working on one large mass tort.  My primary responsibilities were assisting clients in responding to Interrogatories, Initial Disclosures and Requests for Production of Documents.  I was offered an associate position with an out of state firm opening an office in my area working on financial class actions.  This firm also opened a document review business in my area.  I assisted the management of the document review office as well as my normal associate duties.  This firm closed the local office and I traveled doing document review for a few months.  I was then offered a position with a larger local firm working first in their mass tort department and then as the only attorney in their new single event department (single event cases are things like automobile accidents, premises liability, dog bites, etc.).  I was laid off from this position after nearly six years.  For the next year I did more part-time document review and handled my own cases primarily consisting of automobile accidents.  The company I am with now sought me out for my litigation, document review and discovery experience.

  1. How did you get interested in the type of law you’re practicing/work you do?

Initially, I had zero interest.  After practicing law for a few years I wanted to be a litigator.  I did not know the job I’m working now even existed.  At the time I was in law school and shortly thereafter, it probably didn’t exist.  As the need for more electronic discovery has arisen over the past decade, my job has become a little more prevalent.  Although, there are still very few people who do it and very few discovery companies that offer a consultant to their clients.

  1. What are some of the best or favorite parts of your job?

I love being able to work at home 100% of the time.  I spend virtually zero money on the fancy suits I was expected to have while working for law firms.  I spend zero money on gasoline to get me to and from work each day.  I spend zero money on nice lunches I’m expected to attend with coworkers and partners.  I can keep my daughter here with me on days that school is out and still work.  I have enjoyed learning how to help others integrate technology into the practice of law.  I also enjoy having attorneys and corporations as my clients.  Working from home also affords me the opportunity to do things around the house during slower periods in the day like laundry and dishes.  So there is less to do at the end of the day when I’m done with work.

  1. Do you have advice for law students or graduates who are interested in following the same career path?

Start at the bottom doing document review.  That’s a job that is kind of looked down upon, but you’ll typically make more money than starting as an associate – especially if you can travel.  You’ll also need litigation experience.  You have to know the ins and outs of discovery requests.  It also doesn’t hurt to have some IT background.  My job is 100% on the computer.  I’m often trouble shooting issues with clients and I have to know how various types of data files work together.

  1. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t stop learning.  The law changes.  The rules change.  If you don’t keep up with what is new out there, you’ll be left behind.

  1. If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice after you graduated law school what would it be?

Get those student loans paid off as quickly as possible.  Also, don’t be afraid.  Shortly after graduating I began getting case assignments from the local criminal courts to gain some courtroom experience.  I think I would have handled those cases very differently having the confidence in myself that I do now.  There are absolute morons out there getting assigned criminal cases.  You can’t do worse than them.

  1. What characteristics/skills do you think it takes someone to succeed in a role like yours and what can law students do to gain the skills it takes to succeed if they’re in a school that’s focused on placement in law firms?

You definitely need amazing organizational skills.  I’m juggling a dozen different small projects per day.  I have to keep up with what project is in what stage at all times.  You also have to be very driven.  As I work from home, there are obviously things that could be distracting.  You have to be able to ignore those distractions.  Get very familiar with the different litigation technologies out there.  Use Lexis and WestLaw both.  If you go the law firm route you do not know which they will be using.  Once you’re at a firm, you have to do something that makes you indispensable.  Master their case management software.  Investigate new technologies and bring them to your firm.

  1. What are some of the biggest differences, good or bad, between your current role and working in a more traditional law firm position?

The one thing I miss about working in a traditional law firm position is the live interaction with other people.  I talk on the phone and have video conferences every day now, but it’s not the same.  Vacations are different as well.  I can work anywhere that I have my cell phone, laptop and an internet connection.  That means working vacations.  Sick days are a thing of the past as well.  I can’t very well go home sick when I’m already working at home.  I’m not expected to do things outside of my position now.  At a traditional firm, you’ll be expected to contribute blog entries, stay after hours for events (a lot if it’s a larger firm), contribute money to your law school, and even contribute money to the local political candidates that your firm supports.

Like I said above, there are a lot of financial advantages to working at home.  I don’t have to deal with any of the typical law firm politics.  That ended up being a much bigger deal than I would have ever thought it would be as a young attorney.  Your loyalties will be questioned when partners leave and you better have the correct answer.

  1. Is there anything else, words of wisdom or sage advice, you would tell law students who are preparing to graduate?

Have a plan before you graduate.  Whether it’s to start accepting assigned cases from your local courts or a job lined up you should begin getting experience immediately.

 

 

 

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