An In-House Counsel Explains How to Make Yourself Stand Out to In-House Counsel

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As an in-house counsel who still enjoys networking and meeting with attorneys in private practice, I acknowledge it’s not easy earning new business. Most companies already have preferred counsel and mysterious rules for hiring new outside counsel.

If a firm is not part of a company’s preferred network, it seems impossible to break in — but there are chances. And many times, you probably were never aware that you were being considered unless you were picked.

I’ve been an in-house attorney for companies with outside counsel spend that was greater than many countries’ GDP; and I can report that we frequently looked beyond our existing counsel to deal with challenging and unexpected legal issues.  When these opportunities arise, the process for locating qualified counsel to assist would go something like this:

  •          Do I know someone who is an expert in this area that I’ve worked with (or at least met) before?
  •          If not, can any of my in-house contacts provide a recommendation?

If I still feel I need more candidates from which to choose, I turn to trusted professional networks, such as the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. Sometimes — more often than you might expect — I just search online.

Once I have enough leads, I do some due diligence by checking firm biographies. That’s right, your firm’s marketing department work has not been in vain, and often your firm biography is a key component in a hiring decision.

So, how can you improve the chances that you will get the call? Let me start with what doesn’t work. The fastest way for me to count someone out is when I see a biography that lists everything under the sun. I am not looking for someone who has done a little bit of everything — that’s what I do. I am looking for an expert in a practice area and, hopefully, expertise in my company’s industry.

The typical bio I see is one that lists the expertise I’m looking for buried within a voluminous list of nearly every conceivable practice area. It makes me question whether the attorney actually has the specialized expertise I need.

As in-house counsel, I’m asked to be a generalist, a Swiss army knife who knows a little about a lot to cover most everyday questions across innumerable subject areas. No offense, but when I’m looking for outside counsel, I’m looking for a specific tool. If I’m calling you, the Swiss army knife won’t do in this case; the issue requires deeper experience and more specialized expertise than I have.

If your bio reads like you are a generalist, your bio is not as appealing as you think. If you feel it’s necessary to describe all the types of matters you’ve handled, consider making clear those areas on which you’re an expert from those on which you have just a bit of experience.

The fear of losing a potential client may convince you to list everything you have done or might be able to do, but by doing so you are losing out on showcasing your expertise — and potentially losing business.