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In-House Government Contracts Hiring in the D.C. Region: Recruiting Strategies for Employers

Government Contracts is among several highly D.C.-centric practice areas and one of the most in demand for in-house lawyers.

For context, government contracts constitutes more than 20% of the searches we conduct annually. At any given time, there are at least a handful of law firms seeking associates with this experience, but there is always a steady flow of in-house opportunities. What does this mean? Government contract lawyers often have a higher number of options to consider than many other practice areas, and it’s not unusual to have multiple competing offers. Given this high demand, recruiting a government contracts lawyer versus, say, a general litigator requires a different approach. This article provides a detailed overview of the current market and some best practices for attracting government contracts attorneys in this market.

Practice Evolution:

Over the past 20 years, the in-house hiring market for government contracts attorneys has changed a fair amount. From around 2000 to 2010, the majority of positions for government contracts lawyers were on the law firm side. In-house opportunities were not nearly as plentiful. However, due to rising law firm billing rates, more and more companies have brought a larger amount of this work in-house, which necessitates the need for more hiring at all experience levels. As a result, the candidate pool on the law firm side – particularly at the Counsel and Junior Partner levels – has become much smaller. Additionally, law firm associate compensation has increased significantly over the past decade, and the gap between law firm and in-house compensation has continued to widen. So how can you attract top talent today?

Understanding the Candidate Pool and Differentiators You Can Use

  1. Expertise and Mix of Work: Approximately 90% of the government contracts positions in-house are a mix of regulatory counseling/compliance and drafting and negotiating government contracts; whereas litigation and/or investigations focused positions are maybe 10%. Conversely, government contracts Associates are usually trained on litigation and bid protest work, and it’s often not until they reach the Senior Associate or Counsel level that they start handling transactions and doing a significant amount of regulatory counseling on the FAR, DFARS, and other federal statutes.

  2. Profile/Background Consideration: As an employer, you need to be prepared to train more junior-mid level attorneys on drafting and negotiating contracts, as well as on some regulatory areas they haven’t previously had exposure to. However, litigators can add value in a way that non-litigators may not be able to due to their ability to issue spot based on the cases that they’ve worked on. If you are a large, multinational corporation, you may have a separate litigation/investigations group within your OGC, and those in-house positions are rare and hard to find. Thus, you should have high interest in your position because government contracts lawyers who focus on litigation/investigations have very few opportunities to transition in-house. Attorneys coming out of the OGC’s at Dept. of the Navy, Air Force, DOJ, FBI, etc. also have great experience for these roles, so be open to lawyers coming from the Government sector as well. In addition, the majority of our in-house clients want to hire government contracts lawyers who come from AmLaw 200 firms because of their training. However, don’t be too quick to discount lawyers who have been trained in-house. We’ve found their training can be equally as strong. Why? Because many of them have been trained and mentored by more senior lawyers who previously practiced at top law firms (some as Partners) before going in-house.

  3. Compensation/Benefits: 90% of the time when a lawyer transitions from a firm to a corporate legal department they take a hit in their base compensation (and these days it can be as much as a $100K salary decrease). However, if a government contracts lawyer is coming from a Government position, salary will rarely be an issue. The way that companies can “win” in this area is by having candidates look at the totality of the compensation package (including benefits).

    1. Staples (the baseline elements of compensation at companies that hiring attorneys can’t work with, but these are the norms):

      1. Bonus: Most companies offer a bonus target of 20-30% of base salary.

      2. Equity: While equity is becoming scarce at more junior levels, most Director and VP level positions have an equity component (even a phantom stock program for privately held companies). So, offering candidates RSU’s and/or stock options is the norm for more senior roles, but a differentiator for more junior roles.

      3. 401(k): Most companies have a 3% contribution at a minimum, and some offer as high as 8%.

    2. Differentiators:

      1. Sign-on Bonus: Given the supply and demand, this one of the few practice areas (like M&A) where a sign-on bonus is warranted to bridge the gap with the salary differential if the candidate is coming from an AmLaw 200 firm.

      2. PTO: Most companies offer new employees three to four weeks of PTO (vacation & personal leave). You may consider enhancing this by requesting that your HR department waive the formal policy and provide the attorney one additional week of leave. It’s not huge, but it’s one more arrow in your quiver.

      3. Equity: If the position is equity eligible, consider giving the attorney a small initial grant of equity either at the outset or after six months of employment.

      4. In Office Schedule: Allow the attorney to work from home one additional day per week after their initial onboarding and integration.

Best Recruiting Practices:

  1. Your Story: It is important that your search narrative and reason for the need is clear and understandable. If a candidate is considering the opportunity with your company, odds are they are considering other positions because they are ready to transition in-house. Your story should crisply and quickly explain not only the substance of the position, but the selling points to the candidate. In terms of why your position is open, it’s always preferable if the role is newly created due to increased workflow or an internal promotion. However, if the position is due to an attorney departure, this is a bit more challenging unless there’s a “candidate friendly” explanation as to why (e.g., the person relocated, left to become GC of another company, etc.). Just remember that the search narrative is essential and must be developed carefully. Oftentimes, we spend a considerable amount of time helping our clients best articulate their story, which differs from company to company.

  2. Interview Process: Making your interview process as streamlined as possible and knowing the process (e.g., number of rounds, who they will be meeting, etc.) at the outset is extremely important. Take the time to explain to your recruiter and/or the candidate what the process will look like, from beginning to end. Think of it as “mapping” the process. As mentioned above, many candidates are likely to consider multiple opportunities, so having a process in place that is somewhat predictable (in terms of timing) reflects very well on your organization. Another point worth noting: If someone on your interview panel is unable to meet in person on a particular day, it is better to have them meet via Zoom vs. waiting until they can meet in person. At the current time, we are still seeing interviews as a combination of in person and video and that will likely remain the case. Also, if there’s a large number of people to meet, consider doubling up your interviewers or doing panel interviews (for more senior positions). We recognize the importance of thoroughness and proper vetting, but we’ve seen too many companies lose their top choice candidate due to a process that is not as streamlined and efficient as it could have been, which we explain below.

  3. Speed of Search: Time kills all deals. In the current market, employers are moving incredibly fast in terms of their hiring process (some of our clients do all interviews via Zoom and only have the finalist candidate come into the office for the final interview with the General Counsel). You need to be prepared to make decisions on candidates much quicker than you may have historically in order to be in the running if your top candidate receives multiple offers.

  4. Geography and Remote/Hybrid Schedule: The majority of our government or defense contractor clients are located in Northern Virginia. However, most law firm Associate candidates live and work in D.C., so they are likely looking at a much longer commute by transitioning in-house. Most companies are offering hybrid schedules with two or three days a week in the office. If you require four or five days, your in-office requirement is likely going to be a non-starter for some candidates.

  5. Sweet-Spot: The majority of government contracts opportunities are for attorney candidates with five to ten years of relevant experience [note: opportunities for candidates with less than five years of experience are quite rare, so if you are open to someone a bit more junior, you may have an easier time filling your role.] Secondarily, our clients look for candidates with 15+ years of tenure as a government contracts lawyer for Director level openings (and 20+ for VP level, Division Counsel, or General Counsel roles at smaller companies).

  6. Timing of Year: Because the average search takes three months (the tightest time frame being two months) from launching the search to offer, if you decide to start your search in August or shortly thereafter, you are going to be faced with candidates wanting to start the following January to March due to year-end bonuses. If you want them to start sooner, you need to be prepared to make them “almost whole” in terms of what they are leaving on the table. Because law firm bonuses have become so significant (e.g., a 5th year associate in BigLaw receives a bonus of $90k), most of our clients are not willing to do this for good reason, but if your company has the resources to and the immediacy of the need is great enough, this will obviously be a significant and enticing factor.

Where Garrison Can Help:

Garrison has been recruiting for corporations in the D.C. Metro region for nearly four decades and we have placed over 500 attorneys in corporate legal departments. We are proud that 98% of our candidates remain with our client organization for at least one year and, typically, many more. We will work closely with you to ensure your search will resonate with the right candidates as quickly as possible. We are by your side through every step from crafting the perfect search narrative, to interview scheduling and counseling, to offer and negotiation support, and, finally, to candidate integration. You can learn more about our process by visiting our in-house recruiting page here.

“Garrison takes good care of me – they’re sensitive to the needs of my company, communicate honestly and are interested most in the long-term business relationship. I’ve never used any firm other than Garrison for legal searches. That’s how good they are.”

- President and former General Counsel of a leading media technology company

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