Sample In-House Counsel Interview Questions and Tips for Success

June 4, 2024

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction

Key Questions

  1. Why are you interested in this specific role?
  2. Can you explain a complex legal concept in simple terms? 
  3. Can you spot the legal issues in a particular hypothetical?
  4. How would you handle a situation where the business is pushing to move forward with an initiative to meet company goals but it conflicts with legal advice you've given?
  5. Describe a time when you had to deal with a particularly difficult legal issue (or difficult negotiation). How did you approach it? What was the outcome?
  6. How do you keep updated on changes in laws and regulations that affect our industry?
  7. Can you provide an example of a contract negotiation in which you were involved and how you ensured the best outcome for your organization?
  8. What experience do you have in managing outside counsel?
  9. Tell me about a time (1) when you worked really well and (2) when you experienced a conflict with a cross-functional business stakeholder. Why did it go well? How did you resolve it? 
  10. Tell me about a time when you were asked a question about a legal risk that you didn’t know about or have any background in. How did you go about addressing it?
  11. A colleague or senior executive approaches you and asks you for your advice on an issue that could be legally problematic. What do you do?

Introduction

In-house counsel roles can be an attractive option for lawyers looking for an alternative to tracking your time in 15 minute increments at a law firm. These in-house legal roles can offer respite from the pressure of billable hour requirements, better work-life balance with predictable schedules, and the opportunity to work closely with cross-functional teams and upper-level management to impact strategic decisions and business outcomes. In-house legal departments tend to be more technology-forward and more open to adopting legal tech software solutions, since they're focused on delivering legal services efficiently. When it comes to in-house work, your time isn't tracked just by how many hours you work, but how effectively you work.

The secret to a successful in-house counsel interview lies in thorough preparation, clear communication, and a nuanced understanding of the company and industry. Learn how the legal department is structured. Not only should you be ready to tackle challenging legal hypothetical scenarios, but you should also be able to articulate complex concepts in a way that non-legal professionals can understand and be able to connect legal risk to business impact, often translated to impact to revenue. Separately, the biggest pitfall for most law firm attorneys is labeling decisions as a “business call” and thinking that legal doesn’t need to be involved — the best in-house attorneys make recommendations based on their understanding of the business.

Key Questions

Here are some sample interview questions for in-house legal roles and tips on how best to answer them.

Why are you interested in this role?

Highlight how your skills align with the role. Talk about your interest in a specific industry or the company and how you find in-house work more engaging because of the direct impact on strategic decisions and the ability to work directly with business teams. If you can identify a complex legal issue that the company you are interviewing with is facing and ask intelligent follow-up questions addressing the issue, you will instantly score 10 brownie points (yes, that’s a scientific measurement). You should also tailor your response based on the type of role it is. For example, a product counsel versus an IP counsel would have different skillset and require different approaches to how they think and work. Your response is stronger if you can bring in your past experiences that helped you develop a certain skill set that differentiates you in how well you can execute in that role. 

Can you explain a complex legal concept in simple terms?

This is a chance to showcase your ability to communicate legal matters to non-legal, business colleagues on issues such as sales contracts, vendor agreements, or marketing compliance. Choose a concept you are comfortable with and explain it as if you were talking to a friend who is not a lawyer.

Can you spot the legal issues in a particular hypothetical?

For example, suppose you are interviewing for a product counsel role. In that case, you may be asked to identify the legal issues related to a particular new product that the company is about to launch, or be asked to identify what type of protections you would insist on having in the contract. Most of the time, this will be related to specific reps and warranties, covenants, or indemnities. The key is to be methodical and take your time, make notes while listening to the hypothetical, and go step by step in thinking through the issues. Think about the customer, any third parties involved, and any regulators or other government entities. The more research you do on the company, its products, and the role, the better prepared you can be for potential hypos.

How would you handle a situation where business needs conflict with legal advice you’ve given?

Emphasize your role as a business partner and problem-solver — you are here to help the business achieve its objectives. Discuss how you would communicate the legal risks clearly in terms of revenue or how it could ultimately impede business objectives in the long run. The best approach is to suggest alternative solutions that could help the business achieve its objectives without incurring legal risk or diminishing risk significantly. This question seeks to understand your ability to be creative and think outside the box, how quick you are to escalate an issue, and how quick you are to pull the “my way or the highway” move (hint: you can be so right but very, very wrong based on your instinct to block or escalate) 

Describe a time when you had to deal with a particularly difficult legal issue. How did you approach it?

Structure your answer with the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to explain the issue. This question allows you to demonstrate your problem-solving skills, ability to work under pressure, and how you approach complex situations.

Here’s an example how you would use the STAR method to answer the question: Can you provide an example of a challenging legal issue you faced in your previous role and how you handled it?

Situation: In my previous role as in-house legal counsel at XYZ Corporation, one of the most challenging legal issues I encountered was related to a potential patent infringement claim. Our company had recently launched a new product that was gaining significant traction in the market. However, a competitor filed a lawsuit alleging that our product infringed upon their patented technology. This was a critical matter that required immediate attention and strategic handling.

Task: I was responsible for assessing the validity of the infringement claim, evaluating the potential risks and consequences for our company, and devising a comprehensive plan to address the situation. My task was to protect our company’s interests while ensuring compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

Action: To address the situation, I first conducted an in-depth analysis of both our product and the competitor’s patent. This involved collaborating closely with our R&D team and external patent experts to fully understand the technical aspects of the patented technology and how it related to our product. Simultaneously, I worked with our marketing and sales teams to gather evidence and documentation demonstrating our product’s unique features and differentiation from the competitor’s technology.

Result: The combination of negotiation efforts and strong legal defense was successful. We were able to reach a licensing agreement with the competitor, granting us the right to use their patented technology in our product for a reasonable royalty fee. This resolution allowed us to continue selling our product without disruption and avoided costly and time-consuming litigation.

Additionally, through this process, I helped the company develop more robust internal processes to ensure thorough patent searches and analyses before launching new products. This experience taught me the importance of proactive legal risk assessment and maintaining open lines of communication with cross-functional teams to achieve favorable outcomes for the company.

My experience in handling this challenging legal issue showcased my ability to tackle complex situations, collaborate with various stakeholders, and protect the company’s interests effectively. It also highlighted my expertise in patent law and my commitment to seeking practical and strategic solutions in the in-house legal role.

How do you keep updated on changes in laws and regulations that affect our industry?

Talk about any legal newsletters, websites, professional forums, or other resources you follow to stay informed. Mention any professional development courses or seminars you attend.

For example, you might mention Eric Goldman’s Technology and Marketing Law BlogAdams on ContractingContractNerdsLawSites, or attendance at conferences such as the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) and Association of Corporate Counsel.

Can you provide an example of a contract negotiation in which you were involved and how you ensured the best outcome for your organization?

Use the STAR method to detail the negotiation process. Highlight your negotiation skills and understanding of contracts, your ability to work closely with cross-functional stakeholders such as Sales or Marketing, as well as your ability to protect and advocate for your organization’s interests.

What experience do you have in managing outside counsel?

If you have experience, describe it in detail, highlighting how you ensured the quality of their work and managed costs. If not, emphasize your project and task management skills and understanding of the role of outside counsel. If this is your first in-house role, think about the situations where you, as the outside counsel, worked with a stellar in-house lawyer. What made them great? How did they ensure that you worked efficiently and that the two of you stayed aligned throughout the project?

Tell me about a time (1) when you worked really well and (2) when you experienced a conflict with a cross-functional business stakeholder. Why did it go well? How did you resolve it? 

This question tests your understanding of how the legal department fits within the broader organization and your ability to work collaboratively towards shared company objectives.

Share specific examples of when you’ve collaborated with non-legal departments. Show that you value teamwork and understand how the legal department fits within the broader organization. Legal teams sometimes have a negative reputation where they see certain work as beneath them, so being able to show you have a mentality of “we are all on the same team” will score you extra points.

Tell me about a time when you were asked a question about a legal risk that you didn’t know about or have any background in. How did you go about addressing it?

Show that you are all about being resourceful and can hunt down information. You can even drop a joke about checking first with Google University and then validating that with other sources — Google is the number one resource most in-house lawyers rely on! Break down the facts and identify how you would go about this kind of search. If you are part of legal communities like Sunlaw, TechGC, with forums, this is also a great place to search as completely novel issues are rare. In-house counsel very rarely use LexisNexis or Westlaw. The last step can be checking with outside counsel, but make sure you explain that you would be very prescriptive on the scope, how you would limit how much time they’d spend looking into the issue, etc. 

How would you handle a situation where a colleague or senior executive approaches you and asks you for your advice on an issue that could be legally problematic? What do you do? 

This question is trying to ascertain if you understand who your client actually is — it’s the company, not the executives or employees. If there’s murkiness, you need to clarify that understanding and make sure they know that they should obtain their own legal counsel if necessary. You can only keep a matter in confidence up to a certain extent - you may need to disclose details to cooperate with internal investigations if they happen. And of course, if there’s a specialist on the legal team that handles these types of matters (like a compliance or employment attorney) that you need to loop in, you should certainly do that.

Interviewing for a legal operations role? Get Streamline AI's guide to legal operations interview here.

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