Screening for Culture:  What to Know Before You Go (In-House)

As a continuation of my short series about in-house practice and culture, this month’s column focuses on how and why company culture is important in an in-house job search. While compensation structure, job duties, and commute may be good threshold evaluation criteria in assessing a potential opportunity, culture fit is an often-overlooked aspect of an in-house legal position that can make or break your success.

I understand this may seem like a “first world” consideration.  I graduated from law school at the beginning of the recession and remember the stress and anxiety of trying to land a job that allowed me to use my degree. Being able to successfully sell my candidacy for a job was my biggest priority, and at that time, it never even occurred to me that I should consider whether the job was a good fit for me.  However, there is danger in that approach to a job search, even during periods when the in-house market isn’t yielding a lot of opportunities. Serving as counsel to a prestigious company, or an impressive title, won’t keep you engaged, motivated, and happy on a daily basis, and being stuck in an organization that doesn’t align with what you need and value in an employer and position may result in your early departure from the organization. By adding “culture fit” as a priority in your screening criteria for in-house opportunities, you are likely to ask different questions and gather otherwise hard to acquire insights about company values, the job you’re interviewing for, the people you’ll be working with and the overall environment.

Know Thyself

To find an in-house position that aligns with your own cultural expectations, you need to first understand what you’re looking for in a company. Do you thrive in fast-paced environments that revolve around new and novel issues, or do you work better in environments that are more predictable? Are you at your best when you’re working in a collaborative model, or do you prefer to work independently? Do you need to derive personal value from your work, or do you view your job as a means to an end? Are you looking to your team and company leadership for inspiration, or do derive your own personal motivation in your work? Knowing the answers to these questions allows you to be real with yourself, and identify what you need, want and expect in a company.

Do Your Research

When evaluating a potential in-house opportunity, be sure to perform some recon before you interview. Go beyond the company website and look for recent articles, news segments and press releases by (or about) the company. Check to see if you have any contacts who are or have previously worked at or with the company (including outside the legal department), and call or meet up with them to chat about their insights and experiences. I’ve found that some of the best intel about a company’s culture, particularly about how the legal department is viewed, utilized and regarded, can come from those outside the legal department.     

Recognize It’s a Two-Way Street

Remember during the interview process that while the company is interviewing you, you are also interviewing the company. Don’t be afraid to ask the probing questions about the company culture, and ask for examples of how the company’s actions reflect the its mission, vision and values. Companies that don’t “walk their talk” may have a difficult time with this line of questioning.  Similarly, be ready to discuss what you value in a company, employer, team and client, as well as the type of culture that will maximize your potential as in-house counsel.

Admit When It’s Not a Fit

I interviewed with a company early in my career that was outstanding on paper—winner of a number of prestigious industry awards, well known and charismatic executive team, and a very exciting sounding job description. However, during my day of interviews, I came to the realization that the knot in my stomach was not due to nerves, but rather my gut was telling me that while this place was great, it was not great for me. I couldn’t picture myself with the team I was interviewing to join, and I felt like I would need to suppress my personality to fit in with the group. While I strongly believed in the company’s mission and wanted to be part of such a successful organization, I knew I wouldn’t be successful there long-term and withdrew myself from consideration.

A few years ago, I left a great employer and client organization to move halfway across the country for a great opportunity for my husband. During the process, I made the conscious decision to focus my job search around ensuring the company culture was a good fit for me. I knew that I work best in a collaborative legal team that values humor and hard work. I wanted to support a company with a strong moral compass that, at its core, is about doing good in the world. I perform best in environments where in-house counsel is viewed as a member of the team, rather than a roadblock, and legal advice is considered a value-added aspect of business decisions. I decided I would be up front and honest about what I valued in a company, team and position during the interview process, and see where that approach took me. Looking back, I’m happy to say that the experiment was wildly successful. Focusing on culture first helped me screen out companies that wouldn’t be a good fit for me, and I was able to find a one that enables me to perform at my best.

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