Maybe you entered law school (or Kindergarten) already knowing you wanted to be a big-firm litigator, clerk for a judge, or join the ranks of a public defender office. If that isn’t the case, and you’re still considering your post-graduation options, don’t forget to think about non-traditional career paths!
One such option is becoming an in-house attorney. In-house attorneys work directly for a corporation, representing it on some or all of its legal matters. In the past, attorneys usually worked for several years at a law firm before transitioning to in-house roles, often with a client of their firm. Today, it is becoming more common for lawyers to snag in-house roles straight out of or soon after graduating from law school.
Stephanie Zaremba followed this path. She began working for athenahealth, a publicly-traded healthcare technology corporation, during her 2L summer at Boston College Law School, and joined the company full time after she graduated in 2010. Currently, she is the chief of staff to the Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors. She shared some insights with us about her path, her day-to-day work, and advice for aspiring in-house attorneys.
1. Why did you Decide to go in-house directly after Law School?
It was less of a decision and more of incredibly good luck stemming from a not-so-great situation. I graduated law school in 2010, which meant that I was interviewing for those coveted 2L summer associate firm positions and declaring my love for commercial real estate work in the fall of 2008 — when real estate was causing the global economy to collapse. (Helpful advice for law students: be aware of what is going on in the world when you are interviewing, and express interest in an industry that is growing, not collapsing spectacularly!) I lucked out at the last minute with an in-house internship at athenahealth for my 2L summer and fell in love with the company. Staying after graduation — even at a fraction of what a firm would have paid — was a no-brainer. My work had purpose and that was well worth taking a lower starting salary.
2. What’s an average day like in your world?
As a lawyer, the average day was never what I expected because the business was very fast paced. In-house is NOT cushy. I’d work long hours on deal negotiations with vendors or clients, major regulatory research projects, and a lot of fire drills from internal clients. Easily my favorite part of practicing in-house was that even though no two days were ever alike, my client always remained the same. Partnering with “the business” is very rewarding. I wasn’t ever stashed away churning through diligence or research. A lot of my time would be spent in meetings where business decisions had to be made, and I had to give advice in real time.
I became increasingly interested in transitioning out of a legal role and into something more aligned with corporate strategy and operations. Fast forward eight years, and I’ve transitioned from a corporate counsel role, to leading my company’s government affairs work (which I considered quasi-practicing), to now working as chief of staff to the Executive Chairman of our Board of Directors. That’s a role that is almost impossible to describe, but my “average” day is spent in a lot of meetings with our senior and executive leaders listening, synthesizing huge amounts of information, connecting dots for people, and keeping track of deliverables across the company. Nothing I do is legal work anymore, but the analytical skills you hone as a lawyer are valuable in so many settings outside of a traditional law firm or legal department.
3. What would you tell a Law Student considering an In-house Job? How do you Best Position yourself for a Job like yours?
First of all, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you must follow a traditional path in your legal career. Starting out at a firm or clerking will provide great experience, but it’s not the only place where you can learn. I came in when my company was about 1,000 employees total, and the legal department had about five lawyers and two paralegals. It was the perfect size—I had experienced lawyers to teach and mentor me, but the company was growing quickly enough that having a “cheap” junior lawyer on staff saved them a lot of money on outside counsel and provided me with experience on a huge range of work. I was able do anything from handle small contracts on my own to assist with due diligence for huge deals.
If you’re looking for an in-house job, internships can be a great inroad. Look for industries that are experiencing a lot of growth or change — especially regulatory change — where a company might require a lot of work that would be sent to a junior associate if not handled in-house. I think healthcare is a great example. You have to be a self-starter, but if you can prove yourself as someone who can learn quickly and do firm-quality research and work collaboratively with business stakeholders, a lot of legal departments will see the value.
If becoming an in-house attorney sounds like something you’d enjoy, don’t wait until graduation to look for opportunities! Talk to your law school career advisor, look for internships or externships, and network, network, network. (Seriously, network!) Research the industries and companies that interest you, reach out to potential contacts and mentors, and find creative ways to get your foot in the door.
Don’t be afraid to stray from the traditional path! If you’re interested, but don’t know quite where to start, consider getting targeted, one-on-one help from our law school career coach. You can get help with a resume or cover letter specifically crafted for in-house positions, job hunt and networking strategies, interview prep, and more.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.