Overcoming stigma about pathways to an in-house career

Overcoming stigma about pathways to an in-house career

16 February 2021 By Jerome Doraisamy
Wayne Clarke

Perceptions persist about the need for private practice experience before transitioning in-house. Such stigmas are deleterious, argues Wayne Clarke.

Despite what some may think, Cognizant associate director of legal Wayne Clarke said last year on The Corporate Counsel Show, succeeding in-house without law firm experience is absolutely possible. Graduates, for example, are able to be moulded by in-house teams, he said.

The stigma

The offending perception, Mr Clarke told Lawyers Weekly, pertains to notions of traditional vocational pathways, as well as understandings of in-house roles as a career of choice.

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“There is this view in law school (rightly or wrongly), that if you want to be a lawyer, and practise as a lawyer you only get good training at a law firm. Law firm training has its place, and the importance that it has on development of a lawyer shouldn’t be discounted, and rather, should be considered as a complimentary pathway,” he posited.

“The quality of training you can obtain in-house on a variety of legal, commercial and complex matters is substantial – and if you like variety in your work, in-house is certainly should be considered as a career of choice.”

Conflating this perception, Mr Clarke continued, is the fact that there “seems to be no advocating for in-house as a career choice in law school, or even in PLT”. 

“If as a profession we do not change this perception, there is a risk the stigma will remain. Controversially, there is a snobbery that almost seems to start in law school that a lawyer is somewhat inferior if they did not commence training at a law firm,” he argued.

“Even if people disagree with this position, I have several times through interview processes been forced to explain: ‘Why didn’t you go in-house?’, or ‘Oh, I see you didn’t commence your career in a law firm – how interesting?’, and sometimes ‘Oh, I see you didn’t go to a sandstone university (which I didn’t realise is even a thing these days)’.

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“If this rhetoric is shining through in the interview process, I think it’s safe to say there are some who believe it’s the only right way to train.

“We need to evolve this thought process and look at the attributes that make a good in-house counsel – it’s more than being comfortable to work long hours (and sometimes being proud of that?), it’s more than turning an advice around under tight deadlines, it’s a culture that you need to align to, which will largely depend on the nature of the company you are joining and the legal leaderships view on what works for them.”

The role of senior in-house counsel

There is a duty, Mr Clarke espoused, for GCs, CLOs and other senior legal counsel to be the change that they want to see in the profession.

“Again, let’s not discount the role that law firm trained lawyers play in the profession and the skills such training brings to the table. I think senior in-house counsel need to advocate for a balanced view of this. Don’t be that person in an interview that makes an off the cuff comment questioning why a candidate didn’t train at a law firm, look at the person as a whole,” he suggested.

“Law firm training or not, we should look at the candidate/lawyer for their entire skill set; their personality, their cultural fit with the organisation, their passion for the career and the role. Let’s not be the interviewer that discards a CV just because we don’t see a law firm name in the employment history.

“There is an onus on senior in-house counsels to grow the profession and harness our skills to develop an equitable platform for all. Ultimately, lawyers who are seen for their whole self, rather than a line item in the CV, are more than likely going to add the best value to your organisation.”

Advice for individuals

For those who might face, or anticipate, having to push back against such deleterious impressions, Mr Clarke recommended highlighting your skills and the transactions, activities and projects you have worked on.

This, he said, “decouples your work from the stigma and allows your skills to speak for themselves”.

“The discourse should focus on the skills obtained and the practical application of the law in a context. For example, you are a lawyer who has only worked in house for an FMCG, you apply for a role at a competitor – the question comes up in the interview, ‘Why no law firm experience?’, re-frame the discussion to focus on the variety of tasks completed, how the skills are complimentary etc.,” he said.

“Re-frame to focus on why you chose to go straight to in-house as a career of choice. This is critical, be honest, it says a lot about the type of candidate you are, and the type of lawyer you want to be.”

Mr Clarke went on to offer other practical guidance to best position one’s self for success.

“Align yourself early to a mentor in-house. Having such connections and guidance from experienced mentors will only help you go further to develop your skills as a strong in-house lawyer. Lastly, challenge the status quo – always question (politely) why this is a concern when skills and abilities should speak for themselves.  The stigma is on us as a profession to remove, and if we accept it and tolerate it, we become part of the roadblock to developing in-house as a career of choice,” he listed.

Existence of stigma post-pandemic

When asked how the stigma might manifest in a post-pandemic world, Mr Clarke said that the age of coronavirus has impacted the availability of positions in-house, “especially since the international market is much more constrained (both with foreign lawyers coming into Australia, and ours going overseas)”, but that vocational success “still comes down to developing the fundamental argument for in-house as a career of choice”.

“I would hope less prevalent as the way we work changes, and our realisation and desire for work life balance becomes more achievable. What it may cause is the flow on effect of lawyers wanting to leave environments where they were required to take reduced pay, reduce hours etc.,” he submitted.

Necessary skills

For any lawyer looking to succeed in-house at this critical juncture, Mr Clarke said that “resilience still resonates” given that the marketplace is complex and ever-changing.

“The need to flex between varied practise areas, turn around matters at lightning speed and to be agile to the business’ changing needs is ever more imperative.  Assertiveness is also paramount at the moment. In-house teams need to be prepared to help the business draw a line in the sand with respect to risk, and operate in the grey,” he detailed.

“As a trusted advisor the ability to be assertive also highlights the importance of the in-house function – to some extent we act as a gatekeeper, in other contexts a solution architect, and in most a sounding board to business decisions. This assertive, yet adaptable skill continues to be needed as lawyers find their way through the ‘new normal’.”

Looking ahead

Lawyers across the board, Mr Clarke concluded, should look at in-house as a career of choice for the right reasons.

“Individuals may want to train at a law firm, and that’s fine, however, we shouldn’t discount or think that the quality of an ‘in-house only trained’ lawyer is the only way to go,” he advised.

“The best teams are diverse, from various backgrounds, affiliations, abilities, experiences, let’s harness that for the value it can add.”

Mr Clarke also spoke on The Corporate Counsel Show in August 2020, in which he outlined the fundamentals for professional success in-house.

Overcoming stigma about pathways to an in-house career
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