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Unconventional Legal Career Paths | Association of Certified Electronic Discovery Specialists (ACEDS)

Instead of acquiring credentials, let’s talk about acquiring skills. The legal industry is shifting from cabinet power to general counsel power, and law students and lawyers must position themselves ahead of the curve. In this article, we’ll offer ways for lawyers to transition from in-firm to in-house positions, or consider in-house positions early in their careers.

  • Background on in-house versus corporate work
  • Carve your own path to in-house work
  • Industry shifts from corporate power to general counsel power
  • Connect to opportunities

Context: Internal Firms and Law Firms

How is the profession of in-house lawyer different from that of a legal practitioner? And is the result of a self-taught lawyer better than a lawyer coming from a firm in an internal team? When you work in-house, it’s not about billable hours, it’s about working efficiently. Merely highlighting risks is less important, and the role is more focused on providing solutions to business partners. Developing solutions for the business and learning to manage different cross-functional priorities becomes more important than just pointing out where risks exist.

There is a certain “non-training” that occurs when moving from a law firm to an in-house position. In a business, there can be implicit biases that stem from mindsets of looking to bill for hours, focusing on exploiting risk without necessarily offering business solutions, and shifting decision making to the customer. Even the writing style can be an adjustment as you go from writing “blue book” emails to outlining concise, actionable steps. These are behaviors to “unlearn” and “re-tool” when you go internally.

On the other hand, when you start your career in an internal position without exposure to a corporate environment, there is no need to unlearn unnecessary behaviors inherited from private practice. The caveat is that you need to quickly establish your credibility as an in-house lawyer without a solid track record. Having previous business experience is an added advantage for this path, and legal and technology experience can also help. We will explore this further.

Top 3 skills to develop to work internally

Let’s be practical. What does “credibility building” look like in practice? The skills required for a business consulting role involve knowing how to work with different departments that each have their own priorities, which may or may not align. If you’re looking to implement new contract management technology in the legal team, for example, that means anticipating that the added value for that product will be measured differently for each team. Accounting will look at spend, Sales will look at the effects on deal cycle time, Legal will look at reducing manual labor in the contract lifecycle, and IT could focus on issues. confidentiality related to the uploading of contracts to a cloud database. In a corporate context, concerns may revolve around the priorities that an associate, client, and senior associate may have.

Acquiring expertise within the internal function can seem daunting, so here are 3 key skills to develop for the role.


This is essential for any role, and transitioning internally is no exception. Networking is necessary not only to connect you with people who can hire you internally, but also to develop contracting skills and interpersonal skills, such as interfacing with people with competing priorities. Following contract and internal influencers on LinkedIn is a first step to achieving this. Some examples include Lisa Lang, Laura Frederick, Heather Stevenson, Flo Nicolas and Nada Alnajafi.


It comes down to transparency. People need to see what you’re working on, how quickly you complete tasks, and the “why” behind your motivations. Cross-functional collaboration can improve your day-to-day transparency and therefore increase your reliability with your peers and colleagues. For example, make sure your finance, purchasing, and engineers know who you are and aren’t nervous about bringing legal issues to your attention.

Staying up to date with technology is also another way to increase the reliability of your role. The only constant these days is that technology is continually advancing, so by staying on top of new innovations, you can stay relevant even as the nature of your work changes.

Finally, report stats help frame and prove your ability to be dependable on the job. Including language such as “Reviewed X contracts in Y time, resulting in a Z% increase in efficiency” in your resume provides objective metrics to define the ways you add value. More immediately, these stats help fellow salespeople know you’re not “killing” business.


Read, read, read. Increasing subject matter expertise increases legitimacy. Read books such as “A Simple Guide to Legal Innovation” or “The Tech Contracts Handbook”, attend conferences, take Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses, and join hands-on industry groups (such as TechGC) on drafting contracts are ways to achieve this. Additionally, there are a host of webinars (such as Laura Frederick’s “How to Contract” offerings) and law school writing courses that can help you develop your skills and prepare for an internal role.

Changes in the legal industry

Legal tech and in-house companies need to do better to provide opportunities for law students to get hired right after graduation. In the legal industry, there is a chicken and egg problem. Companies with in-house teams don’t want to hire law students because they prefer pre-trained people, but law schools won’t offer enough courses to prepare students to go in-house if there isn’t. has no opportunities for new lawyers. Consequently, law students are stuck in a cycle where they need experience to gain experience and continue to see working in law firms as their only viable option after graduation. Firms should factor in the cost of “non-training” that must occur with applicants coming from a firm when evaluating the cost of “training” new young lawyers.

If you want to develop talent for an entry-level prospect, you need to offer training. Examples of training include hands-on sessions with other in-house attorneys that demonstrate how to negotiate certain clauses, “coaches” where new candidates watch an actual contract negotiation, and corporate/virtual universities with expert content in the matter. The key here is that the training is practical. There are plenty of opportunities here for legal tech startups to offer this training as well.

Law schools must also provide opportunities and prepare law students for the realities of pursuing a career in a corporate legal role. Traditionally, law school graduates were directed to companies that weighed grades and credentials heavily when recruiting. Now there is a changing trend. People open up to recognize more diverse opportunities after graduating from law school. This is partly due to the rise of legal operations and technology, which has led to more options for newly graduated lawyers. Lawyers are now evaluating advisory offerings from big firms like EY and Deloitte, as well as roles in legal operations, legal technology, sales, product and even legal engineering.

The flexibility of the law degree is on the rise. The best law schools recognize the versatility and flexibility of the law degree, but still offer internships and major law as the most glamorous paths. The legal industry is inherently hierarchical, but are things changing? Do students change what they think are valid paths?

With the rise and prominence of social media platforms like LinkedIn, there is increased visibility into alternative career paths, direct access to eminent people in the field, and the opportunity to maximize your own marketing. For example, LinkedIn can allow you to connect with in-house attorneys who don’t come to your campus for OCI (on-campus interviews). OCI is generally a closed digital environment, but you can stand out in other ways by going straight to the source. Students find ways to take advantage of it. In today’s “war for talent”, companies are not tapping into these huge pools of candidates. These candidates already have the motivation and the courage to succeed in their role and just need training to do so fully.

Additionally, now that more lawyers are working in-house, there is a shift of power from law firms to in-house teams. In law firms, it’s about looking competitive at the top of a triangle. In General Counsel roles, the emphasis is on working collaboratively at the center of a network. The business environment is resistant to change, so sometimes the best way out is to leave. But do it with grace, while accelerating your career path and helping an organization grow.

be connected

Don’t let the rat race of law school and predestined paths make decisions for you. Get resources, get a career coach, and network equally with people – from law firms to internal employees to volunteers. Read books, watch webinars, and research resources that can teach you the basics of writing and negotiating contracts. Building a knowledge base will help you understand the mechanics of clauses, contracts, know the law and spot problems.

What does this look like in practice? Take the example of us, the authors. As a student, Memme founded the Harvard Legal Technology Symposium with a Harvard Law peer to fill gaps he saw in the legal technology curriculum. To build this content, Memme met and worked with people outside of law school, broadening her relationships and enriching the Symposium with her learnings. The Symposium continued and only grew in relevance. When Jack saw intern as a viable opportunity, but had “only” been at a major law firm for two years, he filled in the gaps in his experience with the above information to accelerate his transition. As Jack advises, “You can learn enough to be dangerous.”

Learn enough to spot the problems general counsel face, then get out there and build a career you want to grow into.