Erica Alterwitz Meierhans vividly remembers a conversation she had with a colleague ten years ago, when she was a litigation lawyer at a large firm in Los Angeles. They had both recently started at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton and were talking about their career plans.
“I said to her, ‘I don’t really see myself going in-house unless someplace like BCBG Max Azria has an in-house legal department’—which, at the time, I didn’t even know if they did,” she says. “‘Then that’d be something I might be interested in.’ It was really just a joke.”
Flash forward a few years, to when Meierhans was invited to a mixer hosted by BCBG in El Segundo, California. That mixer would change her life.
Meierhans started her legal career working in business trials and eventually took on more cases for the entertainment industry, such as copyright and profit participation cases for studios. She later researched and wrote articles for a fashion-related law blog as a way for the firm to attract fashion-industry clients.
“You have to remember that this is a business and really learn how to construct your legal strategy with that in mind.”
She had always been interested in fashion and worked hard on the blog. It caught industry leaders’ attention, and she was invited to present at a symposium in New York. She and a colleague spoke to in-house counsel and other lawyers in the fashion industry about clearance in advertising and product promotion.
After she returned to the West Coast, she heard about an attorney networking event at BCBG. The Vernon, California-based clothing designer reached out to individuals at law firms with the goal of finding an in-house attorney. Meierhans didn’t know that, though, so she attended the event as an ambassador for Sheppard Mullin, with the goal of bringing the designer on as a client.
She had to be in court the day of the mixer and didn’t have time to stop home to change. As a fan of the brand, she would have liked to wear a more appropriate outfit to the social event, but she did make sure to wear a BCBG suit.
At the event, lawyers were shopping, mingling, and putting their names in a raffle for BCBG gift certificates.
She found herself chatting with the BCBG legal team. The lawyers explained their purpose: to find a litigator with four or five years of legal experience to hire in-house. Despite her love for the brand and interest in the industry, she didn’t plan to apply. She didn’t think it was the right time to make a move.
“But some time passed, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought I should at least explore the opportunity,” she says. “I reached out to them a little bit later, and they had not filled the position yet. I went in for an interview, and they offered me the job.”
Meierhans started in February 2009 as senior counsel primarily handling litigation. She says the move from a law firm to an in-house role was an “interesting transition.” As outside counsel, the mantra was to fight, fight, fight, and leave no stone unturned to win a case. As an in-house attorney, she uses her passion but has business sense, too. She understands that sometimes it’s best to resolve a case early and save the company money—though her instinct tells her the company did nothing wrong.
“You have to remember that this is a business and really learn how to construct your legal strategy with that in mind, as opposed to a law firm, where you’re tasked with fighting the fight,” she says.
During the last seven years, Meierhans has worked her way up to general counsel and vice president of legal. She oversees an assistant general counsel and a paralegal, whom she trusts to handle their respective areas without micromanaging them.
Meierhans credits her experience at Sheppard Mullin with preparing her as an effective networker. Networking was a big focus for the firm—the partners asked associates to attend client meetings to teach them how to network and bring in clients.
By the time she went to the BCBG mixer, she had already networked with clients on several occasions. “The stars just sort of aligned on this one,” she says.
HOW AND WHY TO NETWORK TO GO IN-HOUSE
1. Networking helps you learn about openings, sets you apart from other applicants, and improves your chances of getting an interview, says Aon’s Mark Herrmann in Above the Law.
2. Organizations like First Chair, the Association of Corporate Counsel, and the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives in Law host networking events, but lawyers need to prepare for them to get the most out of them. Be aware of who is attending the events, and research corporate counsels’ employers ahead of time, says First Chair.
3. Take on leadership roles in legal organizations or in your firm to improve and promote your public speaking, management, and organizational skills, First Chair says.