Given the environmental and practical differences between private practice, it is fundamentally important that legal departments provide adequate support for lawyers making the move across so as to ensure success, according to an Australian general counsel.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Australian Payments Network general counsel and company secretary Nancy Bryla said there are numerous challenges for transitioning lawyers to overcome, such as having been “subject matter experts” in commercial firms, whereby they could apply their knowledge and expertise to numerous clients.
“When they enter the in-house sphere, they have one client and are typically required to become more of a generalist and build knowledge over a breadth of areas,” she explained.
“This can be a major challenge for some, who need to step outside their comfort zone of subject matter expertise.”
Another major challenge is the differences in resources, Ms Bryla continued, including research and administrative tools.
“Many firms have paid subscriptions to a wide range of research resources, and libraries for staff to use, as well as a comprehensive set of precedents and templates,” she said.
“Depending on the size of the in-house function, such resources are sometimes non-existent.”
Those already in an in-house legal team can support those moving across from private practice, however, by employing strategies such as allowing time for those new team members to learn about the business and understand the business drivers.
“Factor time into their induction process so they get to meet and spend time with, and learn from, all the key business functions. Be wary of information overload and try to spread this out over time if possible,” Ms Bryla said.
Legal departments should also ensure new corporate counsel get a good understanding of the standard processes and policies (both written and unwritten) as well as the systems in use.
“They’ll become much more efficient the sooner they know what the sign-off process is, who the decision-makers are, and how to navigate their new document management or filing system,” Ms Bryla said.
General counsel and managers must also be patient and available, she added.
“As with any new relationship, the business needs to get to know the style and personality of the new legal team member, and vice versa,” she noted.
“It would also be useful to set some formal time in the diary a couple of times a week to answer whatever questions the new recruit may have. Without formally-structured time, we may get too busy or distracted to make the time.”
Individuals should also take a certain amount of responsibility, she said, by way of building a network of in-house counsel one can reach out to and bounce ideas around with.
Not ensuring proper transitional support can be dangerous, Ms Bryla warned, as it can mean taking much longer for new counsel to understand the business and become efficient.
“This can be frustrating both for the lawyer as well as the business,” she said.
“Conversely, a proper and supported transition will surely increase engagement levels.”
“Also, a proper transition helps the new team member to get clarity and transparency, [which] can really save time, reduce frustration, uncertainty or perhaps even conflict,” she concluded.
A proper transition enables a new team member to get to know the culture and the business, she surmised, while also allowing the business to get to know the individual, highlighting the importance of such a policy for every legal department.