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A photo of the Story Bridge in Brisbane city at dusk

Is it Time to move In-House?

For many lawyers we meet and speak to, a move in-house as legal counsel or general counsel is seen as the holy grail and the ultimate career goal.

And with good reason – in-house positions offer a number of benefits and changes that many lawyers find an attractive proposition. Of course, sometimes there are unexpected negatives too, which potential in-house lawyers need to be aware of before leaping in.

But if an in-house position has been on your mind, then this article is for you. We’re going to explore the pros and cons of in-house positions and address a few common myths and misconceptions along the way.

After reading, if you’re inspired to investigate further, then now is an ideal time to do it. We have a surprising number of Brisbane in-house lawyer positions on our books at the moment across many industry sectors, so if you’ve been putting off a conversation then we’d encourage you to put it off no further.

The Benefits of Becoming In-House Counsel

In-house legal positions have some clear upside. Most often these involve doing away with some of the irritating administrative burdens of private practice that many lawyers find a chore at best.

Kiss Time Recording and Billing Good Bye (well most of the time anyway…)

Despite the growing number of firms that are doing away with timesheets, it remains one of the most prevalent administrative burdens on lawyers around Australia. With it comes the inevitable emails about not recording enough time, billable vs non-billable comparisons, having to remember or look up file numbers constantly, and follow ups on those days you simply forgot to enter your time as you went.

Most lawyers are delighted to find that recording your time (and certainly billing it back to a client) is a rarity when it comes to in-house legal positions. Much of the time you can leave those days behind you.

Fair warning though: an increasing number of companies ask their inhouse counsel to record time as a way of monitoring what gets done, which parts of the business lean on legal the most and to assist with budget decisions from time to time.

No Marketing and Business Development

There aren’t too many lawyers who graduate with a keen interest in marketing and business development. In truth, many lawyers would love to stay technical operatives and avoid marketing altogether.

Thankfully, whatever marketing skills you have won’t be very helpful to your employer in an in-house role.

In fact, you might find yourself on the other foot as the recipient of a bit of positive attention from those in private practice. Many law firms seek to “wine and dine” in-house counsel as a way of building relationships that might convince you to send them the next matter you have that needs external advice.

More Predictable Work

Don’t take this headline as any indication that you’ll not have to work hard – in fact, you’ll probably be working quite hard most of the time.

But what you’ll probably find is that the peaks and troughs of your workload won’t be as regularly extreme, and if they do happen it will be for different reasons. A steady, consistent flow of work is often what in-house lawyers find themselves enjoying.

You’ll also likely enjoy a real mix of good work, be regularly pushed outside your comfort zone, and get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re embedded in the decision-making process in order to solve the problems or reach the goals of your employer, rather than feeling like a spectator from afar.

And remember: with no billable budgets to meet, there’s absolutely no career benefit in staying late. Your success or otherwise is going to be measured by outcomes and achievements, not by how much time you’ve recorded.

One Client (sort of)

Competing priorities are a constant source of stress for many lawyers in private practice, so the idea of working essentially for a single client is very attractive to many people. You get to know “the client” much better as well, since you’re part of the team.

Of course, some larger companies will still have different teams with different work that you need to manage and prioritise to some extent, but it’s nothing like having 6 similarly important clients shouting at you at the same time to get their particular job done immediately.

Broader experience and career prospects

Many in-house lawyers particularly enjoy going a bit beyond pure legal advice and getting involved in their company’s problems from a commercial and business perspective too. In-house teams can help head issues off at the pass, which is often more rewarding than trying to solve massive problems after things have already blown up.

This collaborative process can be eye-opening for many lawyers. In-house lawyers come to appreciate the additional factors that go into decision making in a corporate environment, with the legal perspective being just one part of a larger picture.

This added experience can lead many in-house lawyers to pursue a different (sometimes unexpected) career path towards more commercial and business-oriented roles, rather than staying in the fairly predictable path of private practice.

Challenges of Going In House

At this point it would be easy to think that in-house roles are covered in gold dust and should be revered as the pinnacle of a successful legal career.

While we think they can deliver fruitful career paths, in-house positions aren’t for everyone. Some people don’t enjoy certain aspects of the corporate environment, so it’s only fair to point out where things can go wrong too.

Politics and Commerce

We mentioned above the benefits of getting involved in the decision-making process. Well, some lawyers find the inevitable politics and commerciality of decision making to be… frustrating.

In any organisation large enough to want in-house counsel, there’s going to be more than one person who influences any significant decision. Legal advice and risk management are important pieces of the puzzle, but not the only pieces.

If you’re the kind of lawyer who’s going to blow up when someone disagrees with you, goes contrary to your advice, or decides to go down a path that might be risky, then you might find yourself in a state of constant fury with some in-house positions.

The One Stop Shop

Have you ever been at a family BBQ, and Uncle Joe has just heard you’re a lawyer and wants to get your “expert” opinion on his disputed parking ticket?

Sometimes, being an in-house lawyer is a bit like a much bigger version of the family BBQ.

You might only have expertise in business transactions and franchising, but don’t think that will stop people from asking you about personal injuries, workplace safety, conveyancing, wills and estates, and litigation.

Of course, you need to tread cautiously from an ethical perspective on these issues. But unlike in a firm environment, you can’t afford to be a work snob and simply confine yourself to your most skilled areas.

In short: be prepared to be out of your comfort zone and to skill up in areas that you probably can’t predict.

Fewer Legal Resources…

If you’ve ever worked in a large firm then you’ve probably come to appreciate the unlimited library access, secretarial support, word processing assistance, and many more luxurious items that are probably not going to find their way into your in-house team.

Companies with in house teams aren’t just miniature law firms, and don’t really want to be. They often won’t have the technology, research or support resources that you’re used to having. To some extent you need to be able to work autonomously, without the bells and whistles of a massive budget.

Beyond that, many in-house teams are quite lean. Although your work day might be predictable much of the time, if a major project needs doing then you can find your hours might blow out because you won’t likely be getting more staff to help.

Economic Cycles

As opposed to practice where you can create your own destiny if you are good with clients and can build a following, in an in-house role you may be subject to differing views of incoming or outgoing management on the importance of an internal legal function and the highs and lows of economic cycles.

Within reason, law firms can roll with the economic punches and you can expect a degree of job security.  You are a money earner at a law firm, not an expense.

It’s not the same in a corporate environment though. Economic downturns, cost cutting and changes in the C-suite and their view on the importance of in-house legal can all have a significant and immediate affect on your job security.

The Most Common Questions about In-House Counsel Roles

How Does the Pay Compare?

This is usually the first question people ask and it’s not always that easy to answer. As a more junior lawyer, you might expect a similar salary or a slight bump up moving in-house, but as a senior lawyer you’ll probably notice that you’ll plateau sooner in a corporate position than you would in private practice.

The reason for this is simple: in a firm you are a fee earner – you generate income. In a corporate environment, despite the good work you’ll be doing, you’re an expense and do not bring revenue or customers in the door.

As a result, you’ll have to learn how to be persuasive when it comes to salary review in-house, because simply getting more experience might not mean a pay increase.

Will I have to Travel?

This is a case by case scenario. Some in-house positions come with significant amounts of travel to different offices around the country or the world, and some do not.

Consider each opportunity on its merits for this one – travel might or might not be involved.

What’s the Best Background/Expertise to Have?

The sweet spot and where we get most of our instructions is at 3-7 years’ post admission experience (PAE). This is because at this level you have had the training that will equip you to identify risk effectively across a broad range of areas.

While there isn’t a magic number we usually advise not to go in house earlier than 3 years PAE. You need good training (as you typically won’t get it in-house), the core legal skills, broad experience and ability to confidently spot issues and manage risk across the business.

Generally, if you have a strong corporate or commercial background, that’s going to serve you well in-house. Expertise in contract negotiations and drafting and intellectual property are viewed highly. Of course, each company will have its particular needs but these often lean towards transactional or front-end areas.

Will it Be Bad for my Career in Private Practice?

This is a bit of a coin toss, because of course it depends what you think a successful career actually looks like.

While some in-house roles will give you “cv making” work quality, it isn’t always the case. In fact, for some law firms, the view is that too long in-house as a generalist, not giving technical, specialist legal advice and instead “managing” matters, makes a lawyer looking to transition back to practice rather unappealing.

However, the skills you will get and the likely contacts you will make in the industry could also offer some benefits if you made a strategic return to private practice, and with a bit of work might leave you in a good place to start your own firm or ascend to partnership if that’s what you’re after.

Will I get better work/life balance and perks?

The times, of course, are changing quickly in this area.

You might be surprised to learn that your chances of getting flexible work options and non-standard leave types (e.g. parental, study) are actually often better in a law firm environment.

As a (very) general rule of thumb, corporations want their in-house counsel to be available on site, full time and, when the proverbial hits the fan, they want to find you at your desk ready to help.

What motivates you?

Are you a commercial person at heart who really wants to work within a business OR do you love the law, solving complex legal problems and providing technical, highly specialised legal advice?

Knowing yourself and where you thrive is probably the most important question to ask yourself when considering a move towards an in-house legal position (another reason a move in-house too early can harm your career and job satisfaction).

If you prefer to pour over the law, craft detailed advices or become an expert in a narrow niche, then in-house might not be the best move for you.

The in-house environment can be very rewarding at a number of levels, but those who are served best by it are those lawyers who are highly commercial and thrive in the corporate environment.

Are you Ready to Go In-House?

As we mentioned at the start, although Brisbane is a much smaller market than Sydney and Melbourne for in-house jobs, right at the moment a lot of businesses are looking for lawyers to add to their in-house teams in Brisbane. For a confidential discussion, get in touch with Ross or Peter.