Moving In-House: The Importance of Culture Fit

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 03, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When law firms hire, they tend to look for signs of skill, intelligence, and dedication. For new associates, this may mean seeking out candidates with degrees from top schools, or involvement in time-consuming activities like law review. For laterals, firms may look for years of experience with a prestigious firm, or a history of grinding out hours.

In-house legal departments look for these things too. But much more so than their law firm counterparts, the corporate world emphasizes "culture fit," that elusive quality that seems to indicate "you'll do well here."

Focusing in on Culture

You can define "culture fit" roughly as the ability to work well within a given organization due to a match between a candidate's values, goals, and practices and that of the company. Poor culture fit leaves workers unhappy and can lead to conflicts and quick turn over. If the culture fit is good, all should be smiling and motivated. Or so the thinking goes.

The emphasis on culture might seem strange to those transitioning from law firm practice to in-house positions. But as Lateral Link's Sarah Morris explains:

Unlike firms, companies need someone who can do much more than sit behind a desk and churn documents. They are looking for candidates who can interact with their business team and board of directors.

Will We Like Working With You and You With Us?

If you're prepping for interviews for in-house positions, you should come prepared to discuss whether you'll fit into the culture. You'll want to have a strong understanding of the company beforehand -- not just its business and legal aspects, but its "corporate values" and ways of getting things done. Is it an experimental tech company, encouraging idiosyncrasy and independence? Is it a venerable institution, with strong corporate traditions? You'll want to figure this out beforehand.

Culture, too, is about connection. Morris suggests scanning an interviewer's office, to "see if you can find some commonality to bring up," be it college, family, or hobbies. (This emphasis on commonality has led some to criticize a focus on culture fit as a smoke screen for discrimination.)

How do you know if you're being evaluated for culture fit? Here are some typical culture-based questions, based on sample questions from the Harvard Business Review:

  • What values draw you to a particular job or workplace?
  • How would you describe this business? How is it different from its competitors?
  • What type of work environment do you thrive in?

So, if you're interviewing for an in-house position, don't just focus on your legal skills. Keep culture in mind and be prepared to offer genuine answers to these sometimes amorphous questions.

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