With the GC role becoming an increasingly common route within the legal profession, you’d think that law school would do what it can to help future lawyers be as prepared for the in-house role as for a private practice role. But time and again you hear in-house lawyers lament how they were not properly prepared for the transition of moving from private practice to in-house. All-round business skills, management skills, soft skills, budget management skills, all of these fundamental aspects of the in-house role are often learnt on the job.
Perhaps Steve Yeager is about to lead the way in rectifying this issue. The SMU Dedman School of Law director of career services was previously a GC at a financial services firm in Dallas, and saw a space for in-house tuition, and this was a space which he filled, creating the popular “The Role of the General Counsel” class at the school. It was in teaching this class that he realised how unknown the role is to legal students.
“As a result of teaching the class, however, I realized that the in-house world is virtually unknown to law students. In addition to teaching them about legal and ethical issues facing inside counsel, I wanted to give them a glimpse of what in-house lawyers actually do. And I found a partner in my mission—Marc Steinberg, the Rupert and Lillian Radford Professor of Law. Together, we designed an academic program combining a corporate counsel class with externships in corporate legal departments.”
And the program they designed was The Corporate Counsel Externship Program, launched in fall 2013, and they had 30 companies hosting students, including American Airlines, Hewlett-Packard, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Students still learn about different substantive areas of black-letter law that in-house lawyers encounter, but also learn about the sorts of non-legal-specific skills that were mentioned above.
But perhaps of greater significance is the apparent hands-on approach these companies take towards these students. Each student is assigned a “field supervisor” for their placement within their assigned company’s legal team and the supervisor oversees and trains the ‘extern’, evaluating not just legal skills but their general professionalism and overall company understanding and contribution. Furthermore, given that in-house lawyers can end up working in a broad range of companies and sectors, the range of companies participating in the scheme means that the externs have a chance to learn about the various sectors they could end up working within.
While the benefits for the participating externs are obvious if they are looking to pursue the in-house career path, there are also definite benefits for participants who will be going into private practice anyway. The students gain an excellent understanding of the qualities and attitudes that clients look for in their outside counsel. Furthermore, the broader experience of the in-house world also gives students a broader set of skills that can become applicable for swathes of non-legal jobs too – by shadowing their supervisors they gain a glimpse of how to communicate within organisations, conduct themselves at meetings and all the small bits and bobs that make up corporate life.
The Corporate Counsel Externship Program may be ahead of its time at the moment, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the sort of better-rounded, extroverted education that the lawyers of tomorrow will need in order to succeed in a rapidly changing market.