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A photo of the Story Bridge in Brisbane city at dusk

Recent in-house trends & salary survey

Earlier this month, Ross Dakin sat down for a webinar with the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia which was moderated by Angie Coleman, General Counsel & Co Sec, Springfield City Group. The broad topic was in relation to Peppercorn Recruitment’s recent Legal Salary Survey and the state of play in the in-house legal market in Queensland.

The interactive webinar, which is available to ACCA members to view online, covered multiple questions and discussed recent trends from hiring strategies, to salary reviews and other challenges faced by in-house counsel.

A brief selection of some of the Q&As are below:

What were some of the general or key findings from the survey?

The salary survey was originally set up five years ago in conjunction with the Queensland Young Lawyers, but naturally lawyers at all levels were interested in knowing their worth. Interestingly, in this latest survey, lawyers with more than 6 years PAE were the biggest cohort of contributors to the data and the majority of those were actually in-house lawyers.

In terms of overarching results, there were four main findings from the survey:

  • Massive supply and demand issues, particularly at the 2-7 year PAE level;
  • As a result, this has put upward pressure on salaries across the board;
  • Work From Home (WFH), in some form, is here to stay – or at least a more flexible attitude to working arrangements; and
  • Predictions: the value of in-house legal counsel continues to rise as corporates (especially in smaller enterprises) are seeing the value of someone to cover their legal, risk and governance issues.
It’s pay review time and the survey indicates significant movements in salaries this year. Should all in-house lawyers be asking for more money? And is it across the board or just specific experience?

There’s no question that salaries have increased markedly over the last 12 months. This is largely a result of those supply and demand pressure we talked about earlier. A large part of this can be seen now with firms belatedly increasing graduate numbers, but that takes time to skill these lawyers up to meet the demand.

In the meantime, their lawyers are being picked off, especially at the 2-7 year PAE level either on the other side of transactions, or where we are seeing two years in one of lawyers heading overseas and most recently, the huge increase in the number of new in-house jobs, especially at a more junior level. All these factors have helped push up salaries across the board.

Where are you seeing new in-house roles coming up? Any particular industry or across the board?

I don’t think there are any sectors that are necessarily doing better than others. In fact, we are seeing new roles pop up across a whole range of different sectors. If I was to point to an outrageously short supply skill-set for in-house demand, it would have to be the construction sector. I can’t see this changing for at least quite a few years yet – inevitably there will be a big infrastructure push locally in the lead up to the Olympics, but it’s also across renewables and other energy construction related projects.

Are you seeing an expansion of in-house teams? Are they new roles or expansion role and at what level are most roles in demand?

Yes, to all the above! A lot of these new roles are simply growth roles. I can think of countless examples over the last few years where we have recruited “inaugural” or “greenfield” legal counsel roles for corporates, and likewise plenty of new roles where the legal function within a corporate is simply expanding.

Are you seeing more than the normal level of people getting fed up with private practice and entering the in-house world?

Probably no more than usual. I think there comes a time in a lawyer’s life where they soon realise that practice is or isn’t for them. However, the difference currently, or at least over the last few years, is that corporates no longer have the pick of the litter. You’d previously get ten applications (and very good ones) for an in-house role if you simply advertised on Seek. But these days, you’re lucky to get one! Brisbane has always been a hyper-competitive market for in-house lawyers.

What about the other way? Is there is shift from in-house lawyers going back to practice, and if so, why?

Not really. The transition has mainly been from practice to in-house. That said, one of the attractions of being in private practice is that your salary tends to move quite significantly upwards in lockstep with each year of post admission experience. When you go in-house, you tend not to see the same sizeable annual bump that you get in practice. This is often why you see examples of juniors who might be on “x” in practice suddenly getting huge initial salary increases going in-house, but then plateau as their next salary bump is more closely indexed or aligned to CPI increases.

Are sign on bonuses, or even bonuses becoming a requirement for in-house lawyer packages?

We haven’t seen a huge amount in the way of sign on bonuses for in-house lawyers, but it’s a different story in private practice.

Here’s a really important point I’d be keen on making regarding salaries, and for that matter, bonuses in-house. Unfortunately, remuneration packages are largely dictated to by how the corporate itself views the legal function. Some have a clear idea, and others not so much. That’s why you see such huge variances across the board. And as a recruiter, it actually makes it really hard to put a point on what someone is worth in-house.

Ultimately it is a business decision which is often out of the hands of the lawyers, who, let’s face it, are a “cost-centre” for a business – unlike in practice where if you bill a lot, you get paid a lot.

My advice has always been for lawyers internally to keep educating the business on the value of a legal function. Not so much on how you’re saving them in external legal fees, but more bigger picture commercial savings.

What other non-monetary benefits or extras are you seeing other than pay or bonus? Is flexibility a big one?

Without doubt WFH has changed the landscape more than anything I have seen in the years doing this job. But for in-house lawyers, the ability to work flexibly on occasion has been one of the biggest benefits. It’s still very important to maintain a visual presence within a business and be there for your clients, but legal being what it is, sometimes you need some peace and quiet with no distractions to get your work done. It’s been revelatory and I think businesses recognise these “benefits” for their internal lawyers.

Peppercorn Recruitment is a proud sponsor of the Queensland Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel (Australia). Since 2015, we have placed lawyers in over 100 in-house roles across Queensland and Australia.

If you are a lawyer in-house, or contemplating a move in-house, our Partners Ross Dakin and Peter Liaw would be more than happy to discuss your career options. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.