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Podcast: Does in-house live up to its allure?

In this episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show a recruiter sheds light on the attraction of working in-house and what to expect once you’ve made the move.

user iconLara Bullock 12 August 2016 Corporate Counsel
Phillip Hunter, Stefanie Garber
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Host Stefanie Garber is joined by Dolman Worldwide Legal Search & Recruitment general manager and in-house specialist Phillip Hunter and Lawyers Weekly publisher Will Magee to discuss why private practice lawyers are often tempted to move in-house, and whether it lives up to their expectations.

Mr Hunter reveals that in-house roles often go one of two ways: either very generalist or very niche, and both come with benefits and drawbacks.

Lawyers considering the move are cautioned to think carefully first, as the transition back to private practice can be tricky.



Listen to other episodes of The Lawyers Weekly Show:
Episode 7: Brexit getting lawyers home
Episode 6: Drone usage and related legal work reach new heights
Episode 5: Revamping the law firm model
Episode 4: Bringing creativity back to the law
Episode 3: From outback to Martin Place
Episode 2: Is law school teaching enough critical thinking?
Episode 1: Legalising medical marijuana

Podcast transcript

Intro: Welcome to the Lawyers Weekly Podcast for an in-depth look at the issues facing the legal profession. This is your host Stefanie Garber.

Stefanie Garber: Hello and welcome to the Lawyers Weekly Show. I'm your host Stefanie Garber and today we'll be looking at in-house roles. Is the grass really greener? I'm joined today by Lawyers Weekly publisher Will Magee and Dolman Legal Recruitment general manager and in-house specialist Phillip Hunter. Welcome guys.

Phillip Hunter: Hi.

Will Magee: Thanks Stef.

Stefanie Garber: A lot of partners see in-house roles as a very desirable outcome for their career. It's often seen as the next step, however in many aspects in-house roles are not necessarily as desirable as they might first appear. Phillip Hunter in your view what are the pros and cons of making in-house the next step for lawyers.

Phillip Hunter: Probably around 2010 a lot of lawyers that engaged with recruiters seeked in-house roles for a work-life balance, which is kind of a dirty word in recruitment. Looking at in-house a decade later a lot of people have started to realize that there are some cons to making the move in-house. A couple of those are taking on specialist roles, the lack of career promotion and doing more work with less resources, as well as delegating work to panel law firms and continuing to do business as usual work.

Stefanie Garber: When you say taking on a specialist role I think for some people that’s the allure of in-house. They get to go really deep into a specific topic, what can be the draw about that?

Phillip Hunter: I guess there is two types of in-house roles, first being the generous role which is the business as usual where you’ll be working on everything from photocopier procurement for toner cartridges through to corporate M&A if the business is in an acquisitive stage of their life cycle. A lot more of the roles tend to be the business as usual if you get into a large organization say; a large retail bank then they’re much more specialist where you may be doing a straight compliance role with AML, CTF all those types of regulatory issues as opposed to the business as usual. Then you have corporate M&A functions, employment functions and it all depends on the size of the business and the structure of the legal team.

Stefanie Garber: In some cases you might be doing quite general work, but in other cases you go quite deep into a specific issue that you may not have been intending to specialize in, is that…

Phillip Hunter: That’s right.

Stefanie Garber: Some of the other things that you mentioned are also possibly things that lawyers hadn’t considered when looking at the in-house route. Why is it that there isn’t much understand among lawyers of what the in-house role actually entails.

Phillip Hunter: I guess in-house is considered exciting by a lot of the lawyers that I meet with on a daily basis. I think considering the position and the future of an in-house career is very important and something that we at Dolmans strive to talk to each candidate about. That career progression, mapping out where they want to go and where they eventually want to end up. If you want to be a real estate and commercial property specialist then taking on a role in either a real estate developer or commercial property organization is going to be much more suitable than say property holding. If you go into the corporate with a small property holding or real estate interest you’re going to be doing the business as usual work, taking away from that specialization which could make it harder to move back into private practice down the road.

Stefanie Garber: That’s interesting because I imagine a lot of lawyers would look at that example and say a real estate company is a real estate company, I’m a real estate specialist, as long as they get into that sector it’s okay, but from what you’re saying it sounds like there is a huge difference between the type of company that you end up in and the type of role that you might have.

Phillip Hunter: It really does depend on which company you go to and for the specialization as well. For example a real estate company isn’t always doing real estate work if you look at some of the big five real estate companies, there’s very little real estate work to get involved with but more consultancy agreements and agency agreements as opposed to the development and acquisition style work.

Will Magee: Phillip obviously you’ve been in the recruitment game for quite some time. You’ve obviously seen I suppose a lot of lawyers move from private practice into in-house roles. How often would you see lawyers find themselves in a generalist role where really they thought they were going to be working in something that was quite niche obviously specific to their skill set, and look to move back to private practice because they don’t feel challenged, does that happen much at all?

Phillip Hunter: It does happen more often than I would like it to happen. One thing that we speak about with our candidates is the profile of the practice that they’re going to be involved in when they make that move in-house, but we have seen people take on corporate counsel titled roles assuming it’s going to be corporate transactional work and it becomes a role where they’re doing more of collateral review operational agreements, terms of business, distributional agreements, pure commercial work.

I guess the reason for this is the style of the business you can join an Australian listed organization or Australian head office, private organization as opposed to an international business with an Australian regional office.

If you’re in the regional office you’re less likely to be doing the cold face work and sitting with the decision makers, so we look at it as the initiator versus the implementer of the legal work. A big US organization you’re ensuring compliance with Australian laws on maybe marketing material coming out of the US If you’re in an Australian HQ you’re sitting with board and the decisions to acquire another business are coming from the floor you’re on with the people you see day-in-day-out.

Will Magee: Okay, cool.

Stefanie Garber: That’s quite interesting, so it’s whether or not you’re actually going to have a role in shaping the legal strategy or whether you’re justified to be receiving orders from a head office sitting overseas somewhere and won’t really get that strategic purview in your role.

Phillip Hunter: Definitely, I think both roles are still very exciting and depending on where you’re coming from and where you’re looking to go. If you’re interested in doing that commercial work and getting involved in day-to-day consumer matters for a consumer business then working with a big US organization or a big European business in a regional office can be very exciting but if you’re a deal junkie then you will probably need to look a little bit harder to find a transactional role in-house which are few and far between.

Stefanie Garber: From what you’ve said it seem like people have to think quite carefully before taking on an in-house role. What are the types of things they should be thinking about?

Phillip Hunter: I think everybody should think quite carefully before making that move and dealing with a search consultant can really help shape where you’re going to go and you can talk through some things and think about that career projective. Some of the question that you want to be asking are purely around the practice mix, the development plan, the influence the role has within the business, because at the end of the day whether you’re looking at the pros and cons of working in-house and people thinking that they’re working a lot closer with the business and influencing the decisions, at the end of the day the business doesn’t have to implement your advice that comes down to your managing director or CEO’s of the business. not just what you say.

Finding out what level of involvement you’ll have in the business, who are the key stake holders, who actually decides on the strategy, are you going to be involved in that, what level of involvement, there’s so many facets to taking on the right role.

Stefanie Garber: Sure so it’s one thing to have seat at the table but it’s another thing altogether to actually have a position of influence where your ideas are listened to and put into practice.

Phillip Hunter: Definitely and obviously that comes with experience as well. The more senior lawyers are going to have more involvement in that round table decision making. You also want to be thinking about what you’re interests are as well. So taking on a role in a business that you’re interested in is going to make at a much more passionate role for yourself. What’s the old saying; “if you’re passionate about your work, you never work a day in your life”. But on the flip side of that the product isn’t always the most important thing. It really comes down to the work, you can be working for a business selling cogs and screws but working on big M&A transactions because they’re in a growth stage of their life as opposed to working for a huge fashion house or car company for the guys that are interested in cars, it may be an exciting brand and have a lot of influence around the barbecue with your friends, but at the end of the day it may not be the work that you’re looking for.

Will Magee: Because you’re working in the automotive or fashion industry doesn’t mean that the matters are going to massively different on a day-to-day basis.

Phillip Hunter: That’s right and they certainly don’t pay you in souped up cars and fantastic Gucci shoes.

Stefanie Garber: One thing that you mentioned before was the idea of career progression in-house. When you’re looking at taking on an in-house role how do you identify what your career progression could be and what are the sorts of things you should take into account?

Phillip Hunter: The game I’m in is liberating lawyers from working in private practice and giving them that freedom and more creativity and working with the business of going in-house. Career progression for in-house is one of the areas where we’re seeing people becoming a bit more disenfranchised with making that move. There are less opportunities in working in-house for the majority of businesses. There are obviously the super large teams and very successful teams of organizations like Westpac and Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank.

The majority of teams are around five to 15 people. With five to 15 people there is one general counsel, so how do you get to that position if that’s what you want. If the general counsel is relatively new when you’re taking on a senior legal counsel role, how long is it going to be until you get that role? If it’s for you. You’ve really got to have a look at that. A lot more lawyers now are also considering more commercial roles. We’re seeing lawyers pick up being the point of contact for the HR department or heading up procurement, risk and compliance, company secretariat. People are moving out of pure legal counsel roles and into operational roles, strategy roles.

We’ve seen a couple of clients take on COO roles as well. Great case of a lawyer moving across one of the top media firms to a media company and soon after being made COO, there is that creative element for people that are looking to go that way.

Stefanie Garber: Sure so the C-suite is also a possibility outside of just that general counsel.

Phillip Hunter: It’s always better from the top.

Stefanie Garber: We’ve seen a few examples of people in the market place who’ve achieved really interesting career progression by switching companies and thinking for example of Betty Ivanoff who moved from Graham Corp to Coca-Cola Ametil.

Phillip Hunter: Love Betty.

Stefanie Garber: She is delightful. With these kinds of moves how easy is it to achieve career progression that way, is that an option for people to move up the in-house ladder by changing corporations or industries?

Phillip Hunter: Betty moved across from CSR I think it was in 2008 when I assisted her in making that move. I think we even spoke in the interview where that role would take her, would that be the last role? More often than not people are thinking and should be thinking where will this role take me. You don’t want to limit your opportunities, because there is limited opportunities within the company you are ideally going to be joining, you do have to think bigger picture and sometimes that is outside. For Betty, would she have been happy in that role at Graham Corp, of course she was hugely successful and make great, great strides in that role and took the business from what was a co-op to listed to international acquisitions, fantastic role. For her to make the move and for other senior general counsels or senior legal counsels, it’s a matter for when the roles come up. Had George not moved on from Coca-Cola would she still be at Graham Corp? Probably, it was just the opportunity there. The Coca-Cola role was a great career step for Betty taking on a larger remit as well into the Asia Pacific business in a truly global company, really exciting. Some people make side steps for moving from a private organization to a listed organization, obviously if they can make that move working on fulfilling an educational requirement sometimes. But more often than not you’ll find people moving out of a business due to a lack of career opportunities within the business.

Stefanie Garber: Sure, the overriding theme seems to be that you should have eye on your next role even when taking on that first in-house role. You always need to make sure that you know where you’re going.

Phillip Hunter: Yes. Since 2008, 2009 people have been more aware that their roles aren’t irreplaceable. I think it’s important for everybody to keep their eye on the market and always understand what’s actually happening with their competitors or in organizations that they’re actually interested in. We’re in the game of talking to lawyers every single day and keeping them aware of what roles are out there and a lot of the time they’re very happy in their roles, they’ve taken promotions in-house or taken over new areas within the business so for them they’re not interested in making the move at that time. It’s important to keep in touch with a recruiter in the market in case something does happen to your role.

Will Magee: I think for probably employers and employees like, I think people need to be relatively realistic, what are the chances that this person is going to finish their career with you especially if they’re relatively young 20’s, 30’s. Are they going to spend the next two, three decades working for you, chances are probably slim. I think as an employee you should obviously know what options are available to you and obviously as an employer you should probably keep an eye on what’s out there in terms of possible candidates and where you can potentially be looking to get quality candidates from.

Phillip Hunter: Yeah definitely that succession planning is important for general counsels as well. We see a lot more general counsel now being realistic about people moving on or needing to take the next step in their career. I remember a general counsel I worked with quite a lot who has actually retired from law, Lesley Moore who was the general counsel of Deloitte for a number of years, she was quite open with her team and would have discussions with them about what is the next step in their career, where are they going to, what do they need to develop, and if they didn’t have something in the Deloitte legal team Lesley would actually reach out to me and say; “I would like you to have chat to our senior legal counsel, who I believe would be a fantastic general counsel or deputy general counsel and we would sit down…

Will Magee: Very unorthodox…

Phillip Hunter: Very, very.

Will: Inviting the fox in amongst the chickens.

Phillip Hunter: She was a unique, unique general counsel and very good at the people management and creative element of each of her team, but we’re seeing a lot more general counsel have that view on the lawyers that work with them.

Will Magee: Right you have to be realistic.

Stefanie Garber: I can imagine that approach wins over a lot of loyalty as well from your team.

Will Magee: They know your best interest is at heart.

Phillip Hunter: Definitely. With Lesley she would be their referee and their biggest champion. Helping them move onto something you never know where they’re going to turn up next, you could end up working with them again so looking after them now it pays its benefits in the future.

Stefanie Garber: We’ve talked a little bit in depth about some of the things that lawyers should think about when looking to move in-house is there anything else lawyers who are considering this move should take into account.

Phillip Hunter: Definitely the move in-house and then moving between markets when you’ve made the move in-house is going to be important, obviously where you’re coming from in private practice has quite a bit of influence on the type of company you’re going to go to. We are seeing that it comes down to cultural fit and personality and interest as the number one criteria for making the move. A general counsel wants to know they can work with you, it’s not just that you’re the best lawyer it’s a lot about people skills and that commercial mindset. But moving between markets when you’ve made that in-house move is very important.

If we go back to the real estate and property space, say we have a senior lawyer who is working in a technology company that has real estate clients that they sell this technology solution to or they have a number of consumer outlets or a number of offices themselves in each city around Australia or globally. Real estate is part of your job it’s a function of your job but it’s not your specialization. Applying for a specialist role in a real estate company where you’re going to be doing 80 per cent real estate work, the development, the agreements for lease, leases, acquisition disposal, is going to be a difficult sell on your behalf taking on that role from a generalist to a specialist.

It does make it quite hard, so if you do go down the generalist route you’re going to take on generalist roles probably more into the future and it can make it harder. We’ve got a situation like that at the moment where we’re recruiting for a group general counsel for a real estate developer and we have a lot of people that have done some real estate as part of their job but we’re looking for somebody by the client’s criteria that is a real estate hotshot.

Will Magee: Through and through real estate.

Stefanie Garber: That seems like a distinction that might not be obvious from the outside so it’s quite interesting that you say that you could very easily end up in a role that you think is a specialist role that is in fact just attached to a company that does that work.

Phillip Hunter: That’s right.

Stefanie Garber: That’s really interesting. The final thing I wanted to talk you on in this area is I think a lot of lawyers have the idea that work life balance is better in-house. What’s been your experience on that? How do you see that?

Phillip Hunter: If somebody talks to me about work life balance at interview I always make a note that if we get to putting him forward for an interview that I have a chat to them about the term work-life balance. It’s become a bit of a dirty word in the industry. I think in every industry, especially if you bring it up at your first interview. People that have moved in-house and become general counsels they didn’t move there to have a walk in the park and telling a general counsel that you’re interested in a walk in the park devalues their job and the in-house career move.

Will Magee: No employer really wants to take someone on board for a five day week role if this person is going say; “I won’t mind this job, a couple of cruising days a week…”

Stefanie Garber: Exactly.

Will Magee: Obviously I’ve cut my teeth in private practice now and I’m fairly specialized. I’ll do what I do for a couple of days a week and everyone will be happy. I don’t think any employee will be happy with that.

Phillip Hunter: You’re doing more with less in-house these days. There are less resources in a lot of in-house teams, just because you’re not a law firm and you don’t have that extensive library and word pool team and assistants typing up your emails and so on. In private practice people are working longer hours I guess on a more regular basis. I guess that comes down to if you’re a corporate transactional lawyer and your client calls you at 5:00pm and says; “we’re go for the acquisition of another company,” you can be there all night working on that transaction and you don’t know that call is going to come in. As opposed to in-house because you’re sitting with the business and hopefully you’ve got a good relationship with the senior leadership team and maybe strategy teams you can see when a transaction is coming up.

When they’re making the noise about acquiring another business, divesting, doing a JV. The level of work is still there but you have more visibility about where it’s coming from and when it’s coming. It’s not a walk in the park. But there you’ve probably got a little bit more control over you work hours.

Stefanie Garber: Sure you at least get a heads up, that you’re about to be swamped, you can see the wave coming. For people who have taken all this in and still are interested in moving in-house. What are some tips for standing out? How do score that in-house role?

Phillip Hunter: To score the right in-house you’ve got to give me a call over at Dolman of course…

Will Magee: Shameless.

Phillip Hunter: Great team over there. Really to score the right in-house role, a lot of it comes down to networking, profiling having a name out there is very important. I guess gaining some generalist experience as well. If you’re a junior lawyer, you’ve finished rotations, hopefully you’ve been able to move through some rotations that will make sense to an in-house career that you’re looking for. To keep going with the real estate side of things, if you’ve done a rotation through property, and then maybe construction and maybe corporate, that would be fantastic. TMT is also very, very good because of the strong drafting skills you acquire in those practices.

If you can’t, if you’re more senior, and you can’t really move around it can be a bit harder to gain those corporate skills, if you’re in the insolvency team or the litigation team if you want to go into real estate that can be a little bit more difficult. Trying to score a secondment is very helpful a lot more clients these days are asking for either a lawyer coming from an in-house position already or somebody that at least has a secondment. The firms are getting very, very good at providing secondments to junior lawyers and at that five to seven year level as well.

Something else is finding a mentor, the Association of Corporate Counsel, a little plug for the guys over there, they have a professional mentor program as well helping in-house and private practice lawyers and helping them with those conversations. Setting them up with general counsels and quite senior legal counsels to talk about how they got there, what they should do, what it’s like, it’s a fantastic tool that they have. Also if you are in-house and you’re making that move if you’re moving from one business where you are a senior legal counsel and you’re in a focused legal role but you want to go into another ASX-listed organization but be general counsel.

Trying to get your hands on some of the co-sec work, get involved in some of the governance and compliance. If you’re going up to a GC role trying to get some management experience or mentoring experience, it’s important to those things as well. Where you can’t get that experience there’s always the further education route as well, doing the co-sec course through the GIA if you want to get into an ASX business is fantastic. The College of Law has also got the masters of law the in-house practice program or the masters of law in corporate and commercial, very helpful tools to make that move.

Stefanie Garber: It’s interesting that you pointed to those qualifications, is that something that employers take seriously even without necessarily having the first hand experience?

Phillip Hunter: Hands-on experience I would say outweighs the education experience in the majority of businesses and clients that we’ve worked with. Top ASX-listed businesses they do look favorably upon having the formal qualifications.

Stefanie Garber: I guess it’s another tool in you tool belt. It’s another “for adding a string to your bow”

Will Magee: “Feather in the cap.”

Stefanie Garber: “Feather in the cap” that’s the one I’m looking for.

Phillip Hunter: It definitely is, it definitely is but nothing goes past the hands-on experience, but you can’t always get that hand-on experience if your legal team is separated into legal and another team doing co-sec. It’s a bit harder to get that experience but we are seeing people be quite creative of getting their hands on that work.

Will Magee: To frame it from the firm’s perspective. Someone is looking to obviously take a secondment in order to develop that in-house experience, should the firms be mindful or nervous at all about the fact that they’re sending out their lawyers to test out what it’s like on the dark-side.

Phillip Hunter: Basically out to be eaten. 95 per cent of the law firms out there are fantastic at following up with their secondees that have moved in-house permanently. Some law firms get very upset when their lawyers on secondment actually take permanent roles with them and some of them have very strict agreements around that. There are more clients that we’ve seen in the private practice space that follow them up and that becomes a great internal contact for them.

Will Magee: It deepens the relationships with the client obviously which is amazing.

Phillip Hunter: Exactly you’d rather your lawyer go to one of your clients than go to your competitor law firm.

Will Magee: Keep the business coming.

Phillip Hunter: Exactly, a little mole on the inside, definitely.

Stefanie Garber: If you are an in-house lawyer who finds themselves dreaming of private practice life, how do you go about making that move? Is that still a door that’s open to in-house lawyers?

Phillip Hunter: We’re seeing that happen a lot more lately. We saw a senior lawyer for an ASX-listed rail and infrastructure company recently make that move back into private practice as partner in the corporate space. It was a fantastic move. I guess the reason why they’re doing this more importantly is the diversity of work and the diversity of clients that they’re working for. In-house I guess can become a touch monotonous after many years in the same business. It’s not very often that a bread manufacturer turns into a private equity company, so making that move is important, but looking to private practice a road less taken. You’ve got to plan that move a little, there’s not many law firms that have that pure general commercial practice.

They are broken down into specializations. If you are that commercial generalist in-house it can be a little bit more difficult. But if you are that specialist lawyer that we’re talking about, again in a real estate developer making a move back into a real estate practice of a law firm, that is something that we’re seeing happen and something that we’re seeing our candidates enquire about as opposed to just in-house, in-house, in-house. It really needs to be taken into consideration the specialization over function again to make sure that you can actually make that move.

Stefanie Garber: Sure I suppose especially if you see going in-house as a stint in your career as opposed to the end goal of your career.

Phillip Hunter: Hopefully it’s not a stint in their career and it’s something that they’ve put a lot of thought into and they make that move and it turns out to be everything that they hope it has been, but you know there are a number of reasons why people are moving these days. There is a lot of streamlining in the industry, companies are amalgamating, companies are streamlining and there are redundancies, smarter ways of working. Sometimes that decision is not always yours to make and there are a lot more opportunities in private practice for sure.

Stefanie Garber: When people are looking to move from the in-house sector back to private practice are there any areas that particularly lend themselves to that kind of move.

Phillip Hunter: There are a couple and it comes down to that specialization. A lot of construction and infrastructure organizations have very front-end focused construction lawyers working in their teams. A lot of the corporate and I guess IT, IP stuff can be done by those lawyers but specialist work does go out to the law firms. Construction lawyers we’ve seen make the move fluidly between private practice and in-house. The same as employment lawyers moving into some of the big financial institutions because they are quite specialist roles they can work in-house and then move back into private practice quite easily.

Stefanie Garber: I think today a lot of our discussion has perhaps taken the shine off the in-house sector to a certain extent.

Phillip Hunter: Still a great place to go.

Stefanie Garber: Absolutely. What are reasons that in-house is appealing? What makes the in-house sector a great career move?

Phillip Hunter: I guess it is the old reasons that have been the motivators from the beginning. Getting involved with the business, having oversight of what’s happening, seeing your work and advice implemented and making an impact in the business. Getting generalist work, it’s broadening your practice. Sitting at the table. There are so many things that are pros for making that in-house move. I guess it all comes down to the mindset of the lawyer, that yes they have legal qualifications and they’ve worked in a law firm, but they’re a business person at heart.

That’s very exciting actually moving up the ranks and being involved in those high profile business decisions. There is a lot of businesses out there that we’ve worked with over the years that have exciting products and they’re doing exciting things with them especially in this new, it’s not so new, the tech-age, but what they’re doing with connectivity with some of their products it is really exciting. You’re not just a service provider at the end of the day if you’re in a private practice.

Stefanie Garber: Today we lifted the lead on the in-house sector and explored in more depth some of the issues lawyers should consider before taking the jump. I’ve been joined by Will McGee the Lawyers Weekly publisher and Phillip Hunter Hunter from Dolman Legal Recruitment. Thanks so much for coming in and thank you everyone for tuning in.


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