Law school students or recent graduates who wanted a position as an in-house counsel used to have to work in a private law firm first.
While that is still the most likely career path, more and more companies are hiring right out of law school.
"It's a growing trend right now," said Randy Berholtz, general counsel of Apricus Biosciences Inc. who also is an adjunct faculty member at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
"What's happening in the legal field is that a lot of companies don't like to pay outside law firms for the cost of training first- and second-year lawyers. It's cheaper per hour to bring in a lawyer in house than it is to hire them as outside counsel."
Matt Lab, assistant director of career services for California Western School of Law, agreed that the realities of today's economic environment have spurred a focus internally for legal talent.
"The in-house legal department is a profit center for the company," he said. "That doesn't mean it generates an income, but it contributes money to the bottom line by saving money, by in-sourcing jobs that usually go to outside counsel."
Companies are using internship programs as the way to identify the most desirable candidates for their legal departments.
"One of the best ways for students to get an in-house job is to intern at a company while they're in school and then try to get a summer job there," Berholtz said. "It allows companies to test out the personality, provide training and also see their work ethic. To me, intelligence and work ethic are the big issues."
The rise of "J.D. preferred" jobs in corporate legal departments also has allowed recent grads to step into a company shortly after leaving law school.
These are positions that require legal training, but don't necessarily need the applicant to have passed the state bar exam.
California Western's Lab said companies looking for qualified talent are typically those that operate in heavily regulated industries.
"Any publicly traded companies that have the SEC looking over their shoulder," he said.
Lab said universities, whose athletic teams are governed by the NCAA, are another popular industry that employs the use of "J.D. preferred" jobs, along with the health care and biotech industries.
Thomas Jefferson and California Western are teaming up, along with the San Diego chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, to hold a workshop on the in-house legal profession.
The seminar will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22 at Thomas Jefferson, and will include informational and networking events for students and graduates interested in being a corporate counsel.
Companies will be on hand to present information about their internship and career opportunities.
"One of the things I really noticed was that a lot of companies have a need for in-house counsel," said Berholtz, who helped organized the event. "And a lot of students want to find jobs. I wanted to find a nice way to improve the job prospects for law students and also for a way companies themselves to be able to hire local. I think it's important."
Lab said those wanting to work as in-house counsel are expected to be a "jack of all trades."
"You have to have experience in a wide variety of areas," he said, "because when you are an in-house attorney you're expected to know all the answers."
General counsel attorneys also deal more with business people than attorneys, and so they're expected to think like a businessman.
"Your role is to keep the business legal, to ensure whatever they're doing is compliant with the law," Lab said. "They want the legal department to be the 'Yes Department.' As an in-house attorney, you need to be prepared for the challenges that can be presented. When a business decision may run afoul of law, you have to tell them no."
Those who don't want to find themselves saying no all the time have to come up with creative strategies that help the company accomplish its goals legally.
Lab said companies are looking for people who are able to jump into very dense regulatory statutes and understand them.
Students should have a working knowledge of transactional-type work like contracts as well as a familiarity with intellectual property, copyright, trademark and labor & employment law.
"Just basically have a good solid foundation in regulatory law," Lab said.