Why in-house lawyers are well placed to transition to private practice

By Jerome Doraisamy|02 July 2019

Legal practitioners making the move from in-house to law firms will be able to offer a broader skill set, improving their client service delivery, according to two senior lawyers.

Lawyers who transition from an in-house environment to private practice are well placed to succeed, argued MinterEllison legal consultant Joanne Staugas (pictured, right).

“In my experience, private practice lawyers who have ‘gone in-house’ rarely transition back to private practice, although I think private practice lawyers who undertake secondments in-house are better lawyers for the experience,” she mused.

“I agree that transitioning from in-house to private practice adds another skill set of great value to clients who rely on external lawyers.”

Gilbert + Tobin consultant Susan Jones (pictured, left) made similar remarks, noting that the skills she’d picked up in-house were “equally important for private practice”.

“As an in-house counsel, it was necessary to consistently deliver accurate, comprehensive advice within tight timelines. I had to anticipate and mitigate legal challenges and develop solutions informed by my legal expertise to achieve business goals,” she explained.

“Now that I’m no longer sitting in the client chair, I’m also grateful for the industry knowledge that I gained from my time in-house and my appreciation for the complex issues that clients face in the healthcare and life sciences industry. It’s exciting to bring this deep knowledge and level of empathy to my new role in private practice.”

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Both Ms Staugas and Ms Jones have gone back to private practice for personal reasons, with the former wanting to return home to South Australia after a stint as senior legal counsel for the Roads and Maritime Services in New South Wales, and the latter saying she “missed Australia”, having served as the head of antitrust legal for Novartis in Basel, Switzerland, for 10 years.

But both were also attracted by the professional opportunities that their respective new firms were offering them and their skill sets.

“My recent role [with RMS NSW] was my first in-house role after clocking up over 40 years in private legal practice. The major infrastructure projects I worked on in NSW were some of the most challenging I have encountered, the work was exciting, and it was refreshing to be closer to the decision-making and commercial aspects of projects,” she reflected.

“Although private practice is my comfort zone, my main driver in returning to private practice was the opportunity to join the infrastructure, construction and property team at MinterEllison [in Adelaide] after working closely with the team when I was at Roads and Maritime Services. Being part of a team of experts delivering a seamless integrated legal and commercial service nationally and across all of the major industry sectors is exciting.”

Ms Jones said: “I have practised competition law as an enforcer, private practitioner and in-house, and I enjoyed each of these roles. I decided to make the move back to private practice because I was so impressed with the team at Gilbert + Tobin and the opportunities the firm offers to leverage my considerable experience in delivering competition law advice on major corporate deals, complex investigations, IP disputes and matters specific to the healthcare and life sciences industry. It is a great fit!”

There are also certain skills — practical and professional — that will serve lawyers well should they make the move from in-house to private practice, Ms Jones added.

“I was fortunate at Novartis to lead a wonderful team of expert lawyers working on leading cases and transactions that raised issues at the cutting edge of competition law. For instance, we helped the business to navigate the intersection of competition law with IP and technology, and to anticipate enforcement based on new and expanded theories of harm (such as innovation theory in mergers, regulatory abuse and information exchange),” she recounted.

“On a daily basis, I was required to provide strategic advice to senior leaders regarding vital decisions for the company. It was necessary to present solutions to often complex issues with speed and clarity. It was also crucial to build trust and obtain the buy-in from my internal clients.”

There are challenges to making such a transition, however, including time management. Ms Staugas advised that those who transition would have to note the differences in managing time and work in different environments.

“In-house, the work is fast-paced with immediate demands and quick turnarounds required. Also, one has the comfort blanket of accessing external lawyers for extra support when needed,” she said.

“In private practice, providing a superior legal service often at short notice and being efficient within cost constraints is always a challenge. As is understanding the commercial and operational context in which the advice is required.”

But, simultaneously, there are opportunities for those who make the jump, Ms Staugas posited.

“As the legal services market develops and clients are looking for broader services that deliver whole of project life cycle solutions to projects and mitigate risk, it is likely lawyers who have in-house experience will be attracted to private law firms,” she concluded.

“Understanding commercial drivers and how to manage risk are skills often best developed in-house.”

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Why in-house lawyers are well placed to transition to private practice
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