By Colin Fergus and Jean M. H. Fergus
New York Law Journal, Monday, March 9, 1992

In-House counsel positions are enormously attractive today. As the trend to internalize legal services has picked up pace, the work of in-house counsel has become more challenging and multi-dimensional.

This evolution has precipitated a problem in hiring in-house counsel, since hiring procedures, often rooted in a leftover mentality of yesteryear, are no longer adequate to guarantee a good result. Hiring the right in-house counsel means taking a fresh look at the recruiting and interviewing process.

Changes in the process are necessary for two reasons. First, the role of in-house counsel has expanded greatly in the last decade. Once considered a mere paper-processing conduit to an outside law firm, today's in-house counsel is increasingly viewed as a trusted adviser and corporate strategist.

Integral parts of the job now include hands-on involvement in making business decisions and providing legal advice. In addition to legal acumen, the contemporary in-house lawyer must have exceptional skills in communication and problem-solving.

The second reason changes in the selection process are needed is that lawyers from the usual pool of talent for these positions - associates and partners from the big law firms - are no longer being trained in the same way. A divergence has developed between the skills required to be successful at a law firm and the skills required of in-house corporate counsel.

While the role of in-house lawyers has expanded, law firm attorneys have moved to ever-narrower fields of expertise. Attorneys trained in narrow practice areas often are untested in the broad new abilities that the corporate client requires. The old practice of plugging a lawyer from a respected big firm into an in-house counsel slot is no longer reliable.

The upshot is that the interviewing and hiring process for in-house counsel needs significant adjustment. Corporations hiring attorneys will have to dig deeper and probe further to determine whether a candidate trained at a big firm has the underlying abilities to make the transition successfully to today's in-house counsel position. Fortunately, there are techniques that the prepared interviewer can use to get the exact information that is needed.

The Job Description
The hiring process really begins before the first interview; it begins with the drafting of a job (description that provides an accurate profile of the qualities of the candidate being sought. Most in-house counsel job descriptions merely set out technical requirements for the position -academic requirements, years of experience and type of practice, for example. But other, more intangible, attributes are also important - including a good business sense, an ability to communicate with non-lawyers, an ability to work with a team, and decision making and problem solving skills. In fact, it is usually the intangible qualities that figure prominently in the ultimate decision to hire.

When hiring the in-house attorney, there are four basic points to consider: intellectual ability, usually evidenced by academic achievement; practice experience and its relevancy; interpersonal skills; and the attitude of the individual toward his or her work and toward life in general. While the first two points can be preliminarily determined from a resume, the face-to-face interview is critical in identifying the personal skills that are also required.

The initial interview serves to explore the candidate's basic level of competence. Questions relating to practice experience, law school credentials, motivation for seeking an in-house position, long- and short-term career goals and general questions about background and interests are standard at this stage.

During the second interview, however, the screening-out process begins. It is in the second interview that the needed in-house lawyering skills are sought.

Ferreting out a candidate's abilities beyond the technical areas is essential in order to make a good hiring decision. Strategies to test the candidate's judgment, communication skills, attitude and other qualities that may also be required of the in-house counsel are appropriate. Some techniques that can be used in an in-house candidate interview are described below.

Interview Techniques
Testing for judgment qualities. Since in-house counsel will work closely with business associates, good abilities in problem-solving, decision-making and analysis are important. A well crafted hypothetical can draw out a candidate's judgment talents.

An interviewer can start with an actual problem that the office has encountered. For example, "We recently had an interesting situation at Moscowland Inc. Let me tell you about it. I would like your thoughts." In outlining the problem, the interviewer should present the candidate with the whole mélange of relevant and irrelevant information that was known.

The interviewer should look for what angle the candidate uses to approach a problem and organize his or her thoughts. The candidate can be invited to "think aloud."

The interviewer should look for enthusiasm and involvement. Does the candidate say "we could do this" or "you could do this"? The difference is subtle, but it might indicate the individual's ability to stand on the side of the company when analyzing its problems.

Also, the interviewer should evaluate whether the candidate has a good business sense and an understanding of the industry. Does the attorney come across as a problem-solver who is sensitive to essential business relationships - with vendors, unions and others - or a "go for the jugular" negotiator?

Communication with non-lawyers. In-house counsel works directly not only with lawyers and business executives, but with a whole range of company personnel -- factory workers, salespeople, and scientists, for example. Prospective candidates should be scheduled to meet with some of the corporate personnel with whom they will interact regularly. When the interview also involves non-legal personnel, the interviewer should design his or her questions to reflect the type of day-to-day problems a candidate might encounter.

Tactful communication is very important in the corporate setting. There is truth to the statement that how a person says something is almost as important as what the person says.

The interviewer might test the candidates for the ability to communicate tactfully by saying, "From time to time we have to give the corporate finance group some bad news. I recently had to let them know that they couldn't do what they wanted to do on a particular project. Have you ever had to give clients advice that they didn't want to hear? How did you handle that?"

There is, of course, no right answer to this question. The important issue is whether the candidate's style will work within the organization. The interviewer should be listening to hear if the candidate is straightforward, credible and empathetic or whether the candidate glosses over the main points and unacceptably "sugar-coats" the bad news.

Written communication skills are also important. General counsel used to give candidates a problem and ask for a written memorandum to be returned the next day. With lawyers who have been practicing for several years, there are certain assumptions that can be made about their writing skills. Interviewers should ask to see a recent memorandum or writing sample. With litigators, a transcript of a recent deposition may be helpful.

Candidates should be asked directly if they write well and should give evidence to support their personal assessment. How are their skills evaluated by their partners, clients, or others?

Attitude. Testing for attributes such as character, loyalty, integrity, honesty, and responsibility is easier than it seems. For example, the interviewer should ask the candidate if he or she enjoys being a lawyer. What part of being a lawyer brings the candidate the most satisfaction? Who, at the candidate's present firm, does he or she look up to? What is the candidate's philosophy on life? Who is the candidate's "hero"? The interviewer should listen for positive language that the candidate uses about himself or herself, and others. Does the candidate sound like a "winner"?

How the candidate deals with objections and overcomes them is also important. Interviewers should test the candidate by finding something in his or her resume that can be used as an objection to the candidate's qualifications for the job. For example, "I see from your resume that your principal experience is rather narrow. You know, that particular experience is not really needed in this position." Does the candidate respond by pointing out that while he or she does have experience in a specific area, his or her expertise is much broader and includes other expertise as well? Or does the candidate become defensive and assert, for example, that those are the only assignments that he or she was given?

Two-Way Street
The interview process goes both ways: Candidates also evaluate the position. Most intelligent individuals will opt out of situations that will make them uncomfortable.

It is important, therefore, for the interviewer to take the time to realistically present the duties and responsibilities of the position, including its drawbacks. Are there difficult personalities to deal with? Is upward advancement available? How will the candidate be evaluated and compensated? If there are unique pressures that the candidate will be presented with, these should be described.

Many law firm lawyers misunderstand the role of an in-house lawyer. Attracted by the "life-style" considerations - fewer working hours, free weekends, no time sheets - they may view the in-house lawyer's role in a limited context. The interviewer should ask the candidate what he or she thinks the role of the in-house counsel is, and evaluate the answer carefully according to the circumstances of the situation.

Whether in a buyer's market or a seller's market, finding the right candidate is not easy. The interview strategy must discover qualities below the surface. The benefits go beyond legal cost savings and risk reduction. If an in-house law office is well staffed, it will not only gain in prestige, but will also find that its lawyers continuously develop closer alliances with business people and become key players in the future of the corporation.

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
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