Finding success as a junior in-house counsel
Lawyers Weekly spoke to the two winners of the corporate counsel categories at the recent 30 Under 30 about the lessons they’ve learnt, opportunities on the horizon and practical advice for those coming through the ranks.
Cola-Cola Amatil legal counsel Nick Phillips (pictured, left), who won the Corporate Counsel (Large Business) Award at 30U30, reflected that he was fortunate to enjoy a short secondment early on in his legal career while practising in the Wellington office of New Zealand firm Bell Gully.
“It was during that secondment it occurred to me that my skill set was perhaps more suited to an in-house role. A few years on, when opportunities came up in the Coca-Cola Amatil in-house legal team (first as a secondment, and then later in a permanent role), I took them with both hands!”
The winner of the Corporate Counsel (SME) Award, Nearmap legal counsel Haylen Pong (pictured, right), on the other hand, said she was motivated by a legal career “that would see me fully integrated into a company and able to provide legal advice within a broader business context that includes business goals, objectives and strategy”.
“Developing the ability to tailor the best legal solutions to commercial problems whilst taking into account internal operational processes was a challenge I really wanted to tackle,” she explained.
Looking at the work they now do, Mr Phillips said he likes to think of an in-house counsel role as being analogous to that of a doctor.
“Generally, in-house counsel can and will advise on a wide range of matters, but for complex or specific issues, you may need to see a specialist for their opinion/advice,” he said.
In light of this, it is crucial that legal counsel be themselves, he continued.
“As an in-house lawyer, it is important to build strong relationships with your colleagues in different areas of the business, and those relationships are much easier to build when your colleagues across the business see you as a person, not just as ‘the lawyer’.
“Also, it is important to put your hand up and get stuck in to not only the work and project that your team gets involved in, but also the other activities and events across the business!”
Ms Pong added that junior practitioners emerging in-house have to be “fearless”.
“Never be frightened whilst you are insisting on maintaining your ethics and doing the right thing.”
Within an in-house environment, Ms Pong explained, internal stakeholders “will have absolute access to you”, and thus it is necessary to develop soft skills, display emotional intelligence and be able to effectively communicate.
“You will not have immediate answers to every question, and sometimes to provide an answer, you will need to ask even more questions of colleagues and peers around you — make sure you always have an appropriate communication strategy in mind. But a positive work attitude, and a willingness to listen and learn, will take you most of the way!”
Moreover, there are “limitless” opportunities for emerging in-house counsel, Ms Pong said.
“From a legal perspective, there are a multitude of opportunities to incorporate interdisciplinary skills with legal knowledge, creating a much more effective lawyer with a variety of industry knowledge,” she said.
“From a non-legal perspective, years of analysing risks or problem-solving means that an in-house counsel could take on a leadership role with increased decision-making power.”
Mr Phillips agreed, saying more opportunities are becoming available as businesses increasingly look to bring their legal work back in-house.
“It is, therefore, important for graduate and junior lawyers to speak with a range of people in the industry to find out what roles might best suit their skill set and career goals,” he advised.
And, when asked how they felt to have won the corporate counsel categories at 30U30, the pair both expressed shock.
“Getting this kind of recognition is a blessing, but it is also the result of a snowball effect of other blessings — people who have mentored you, supervisors that have entrusted you with interesting work and judges who thought my work was worthy of an award. So, above all else, I’m incredibly thankful,” Ms Pong concluded.
Mr Phillips added: “Given the calibre of the finalists, I am still pinching myself!”