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Summary Judgment: Navigating a Career Transition

Whether embarking on an entirely new career or changing roles within an organization, many of us experience a career transition at some point in our lives. This summary judgment gleans the most useful tips shared by in-house lawyers about starting a solo practice, working as a contract lawyer and moving to a new industry or department.

Start a solo practice

Those with more of an appetite for risk, and less of an appetite for working within someone else's system, may want to set up their own shop. Foraying into the world of sole proprietorship can be both exhilarating and nerve- wracking. On the pro side, you have ultimate control over your own schedule, workload and firm structure. On the con side, you have sole responsibility for all aspects of the practice, including non-legal functions, and for bringing in client work, without an established infrastructure and the value of a brand. As a solo outfit, you also may not have sufficient resources to pursue larger projects, thus limiting your potential client base.

Starting a business requires a sizable financial investment, which may include:

  • Software
  • Computer equipment
  • Leased office space
  • Hired support staff
  • Malpractice and other insurance
  • Legal research and management tools

As a business owner, you will also be responsible for managing regulatory compliance, assuming the cost of payroll taxes and benefits, collections, recruiting and management, and sales and marketing.

Read "GPS: Get on the Path to Success" if you're interested in more insight on this topic.

Become a contract lawyer

A step away from sole proprietorship is working for one of the many legal staffing or contract attorney companies in operation today. Companies, such as Special Counsel, Inside Legal and Robert Half Legal, and managed services companies such as Axiom, hire attorneys on an as-needed basis for projects contracted out to them by private law firms and in-house law departments. Engagements can range from several days to several years, after which the contract attorney must await another assignment. If you're just looking to fill the time between your last job and the next big thing, contract attorney work may be a useful bridge.

Working as a contract attorney has pros and cons; read "Keep Your Skills Current While in Transition" for more information.

Work for a nonprofit

Today's nonprofits are not backwaters; they deal with complex issues of intellectual property, government regulation, tax law and international transactions. If you are truly considering the transition to a non- profit organization, you need to understand some of the myths and some of the truths about working in a non- profit environment. A commonly cited reason for not pursuing a nonprofit law career is that the practice area is impossible to master. Skeptics claim that going in-house at a nonprofit is simultaneously too specialized and too general. While it is true that the role of a general counsel is inherently general and that there are often specific tasks that one must execute, the job is neither impossible nor unmanageable.

According to "The Water's Fine: Making a Career Transition to Nonprofit" the top priorities for most non-profit lawyers include:

  • Governance: spend time learning what is expected from a nonprofit board and the challenges of working with volunteer leadership.
  • Tax: Inevitably, you will need to understand the special constraints and advantages of working as a nonprofit with the category of exemption applicable to your organization. Initially, nonprofit tax law may seem daunting, but it can be learned. After all, none of this article's authors started their careers as tax lawyers.
  • Employment and labor: your organization will have employees, and if you have employees, inevitably, you will have employment problems.

Same company, new role

A transition may be as simple as asking your general counsel if you can take on new projects and work in a different area. Many in-house counsel serve as legal advisors to managers in other departments, such as human resources, marketing or investor relations. If you're not already doing so, you could seek opportunities to offer more strategic, business-oriented advice to company senior managers. It can be quite rewarding to use your knowledge of big-picture business issues to improve service to internal clients and help the department win the trust of management.

Read "Is It Time to Move On? 14 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Career" for more tips on how to become engaged with the business.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.