The number of in-house legal professionals in Australia has grown by 82 per cent since 2011. What’s causing the uptick in lawyers choosing this vocational path, and will it continue?
As recently reported by Lawyers Weekly, the volume of Australian lawyers working in-house has grown exponentially in the past decade, almost doubling from 7,325 in 2011 to 13,360 in 2020. This marks a rise of 82 per cent in the number of corporate counsel country-wide. Only government legal work has seen a bigger increase in its proportion of the nation’s legal profession in that time.
Much has already been said – including by this publication – about the rise of the in-house lawyer and their growing influence in the age of coronavirus and amid elevated governance and compliance concerns, as well as the increased focus in legal education on such vocational pathways.
With the aforementioned 2020 National Profile of Solicitors findings shedding light on how popular in-house life has become, Lawyers Weekly spoke with leading corporate counsel about how and why such positions are so sought after right now and what those in-house have to look forward to moving forward.
Responses to findings
When asked about the growth by 82 per cent of in-house professionals around Australia, all four interviewees said they were “unsurprised”.
“Most corporations are realising the value that in-house legal counsel can offer, the value that goes beyond that of a black letter lawyer. With an in-house team, you invest in a team of legal professionals that also become valuable commercial operators as they often know a lot about the intricacies of a business’ operations. You get more than a lawyer, you get so much more added value,” said Telstra legal business partner Sunil Puranikmath (pictured, second from left), who won the Excellence Award at the 2021 Corporate Counsel Awards.
Working in-house was once considered an alternative pathway, WiseTech Global general counsel Katrina Johnson (pictured, far left) mused, but now it is “very much” mainstream.
“Over the past decade, there’s been a steep rise in the number of businesses with in-house legal teams and in the sizes of those teams, which has meant more lawyers moving across from private practice to in-house roles,” she said.
Linktree general counsel Rosanna Biggs (pictured, second from right) agreed: “I’ve spoken to a lot of private practice lawyers who are targeting in-house roles as the next step on their career path, but I don’t know any in-house lawyers who plan to make a return to private practice.”
Baker Hughes general counsel Barry Cameron (pictured, far right) noted that there has been an increase “given the increasing complexity of international and national regulation, new challenges which have arisen and some high-profile commissions which have found there to be systemic control issues in their areas of interest”.
One reason that more and more Australian lawyers are in-house, Mr Puranikmath hypothesised, is that many law firms have been unable to shake off the perception that firms demand long hours and place value on dollars earned for the firm.
“That lifestyle is a choice that more and more people are not choosing to take, as they value flexibility, a more manageable workload, a sustainable pace and avoidance of excessive pressure. In house teams are also offering such a wider breadth of work to challenge lawyers to learn new skills and not get bored,” he posited.
“Think about a large corporation like Telstra where you have the ability to rotate teams from doing large corporate transactions, dealing with Telco law, then advising on Telstra Energy, or Telstra Health. The opportunity to diversify and do new things within the same brand is incredibly appealing.”
Awareness, promotion and benefits
According to Ms Johnson, more and more legal professionals coming through the ranks are seeing in-house practice as a viable and desirable career path: “I believe there’s now broader recognition by universities and the legal profession generally of the quality of training and experiences that can be provided to graduates and junior lawyers in an in-house environment. Traditionally, this had been considered almost the exclusive domain of law firms, but that perception has been shifting in recent years.”
The unique benefits and opportunities afforded to those choosing such pathways, Ms Johnson added, perpetuate this: “For example, there are deep learning opportunities and new ways of thinking that come from working alongside non-legal executives from myriad business units every day – what is sometimes referred to as ‘MBA by osmosis’.
“The ability to work with and continuously learn from senior executives outside of the legal profession is a particularly desirable aspect of in-house practice that is also difficult to replicate in law firms. So too are the opportunities to see a matter through from start to finish, and to directly impact your employer’s strategic direction and business outcomes.”
Moreover, for those wanting to diversify future career options and have access to more commercial roles, in-house life provides the best prospects, she submitted.
“Career adventuring has become more popular than ever before, and this applies equally to the legal profession. We’ve also seen numerous recent examples of in-house lawyers becoming successful CEOs or joining the C-suite in non-legal roles, and these examples will certainly have encouraged some lawyers to make the move in-house,” she said.
‘Push and pull’ effect
Mr Cameron pointed to a “push and pull” effect, identifying the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, increasing regulation and response to high-profile corporate failures as giving rise to a need to have more robust risk identification and management in-house.
“Also, I feel that large corporates want a more business-oriented approach to their legal support which perhaps the constraints of private practice can’t deliver; while it is not quite the same, consider the market share that PWC and EY law now have which is largely built on their ability to provide more holistic commercial solutions for their clients,” he said.
On the pull side, Mr Cameron continued, perceived flexibility gives rise to a desire to move in-house.
“I would always caution, however, that life in-house can be very demanding and, at times, isolating, where resources are always limited and you have multiple competing priorities. While career progression can also be limited as most organisations operate a fairly flat legal structure, the opportunity to undertake work across a number of different areas can also be appealing,” he said.
‘No two days are the same’
For Ms Biggs, being “at the heart of the action” as a corporate counsel, and having more flexibility – as alluded to by Mr Cameron – makes all the difference.
“No two days are the same; it’s fast-paced and exciting, and the breadth of areas you need to be across means you have to be on your toes at all times. You also get to see things through from start to finish; you design, execute, and are accountable for the strategy you put in place, so it’s truly your skin in the game,” she outlined.
“From a work-life perspective, in my experience, in-house environments provide greater flexibility and benefits. Not needing to time record or do monthly billing also helps!”
Both Ms Johnson and Mr Puranikmath said they believe interest in this vocational path will be amplified in the new normal, particularly in light of the mainstreaming of remote and flexible working arrangements and non-traditional practice methodologies.
“Individuals have proven to their employers that trust exists that the job gets done, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of home and social life – it can happen around those important moments when necessary,” Mr Puranikmath argued.
“I think this trust has been earnt and demonstrated works well – to go backwards and take that away would be detrimental. I think the teams that are most successful will lean into this and explore opportunities for teams to continue to work flexibly as it suits them.”
Ms Johnson added: “We’re seeing more lawyers (particularly those newer to the profession) embrace the concept of a career ‘lattice’ rather than a vertical career ‘ladder’, so the opportunities for career adventuring that come with in-house practice will continue to be particularly attractive.”
“In addition, the in-house necessity to collaborate with your colleagues, rather than to compete against them for clients or billable hours, will undoubtedly prove attractive for both junior and senior lawyers alike well into the future,” she said.
Mr Cameron pointed out that the impact of climate change and the changing in direction of many large corporates could contribute to such ongoing popularity: “They will all require significant legal guidance over the coming years to assist in the mapping of the relevant legal requirements, the appropriate structures to develop and market the opportunities and the risk mitigation required. Because of the long gestation period involved, the larger companies will be well-advised to create the right resource internally relying only on private practice for very specific or esoteric issues.”
Ms Biggs warned, however, that in-house life isn’t for everyone.
“Small legal teams mean you’re unlikely to be able to specialise in any one particular area, and you often need to be comfortable working more independently and in the grey. The role requires a different set of skills, so there’ll always be people who prefer private practice,” she advised.
Longevity of attractiveness as a vocational path
There remains, Ms Biggs reflected, “a lot of snobbery” that exists in the legal profession: “There’s a common myth that the in-house life is much easier (shorter hours, less demanding work etc.) and so some lawyers think it’s a cop out to go in-house,” she said.
“It’s on us as leaders in-house to dispel this myth. We need to be more vocal about the experience that in-house can offer, including the challenges and the benefits.”
Mr Cameron supported this: “We have to continue to push the value proposition of the in-house lawyer so that they understand their value in a business context. Employees of any discipline are more engaged and happy at work when they feel they are contributing and that they understand how to sell that across the business.”
Moreover, he said, corporate counsel also have to remain open to new ideas.
“I joined the profession nearly 30 years ago just about before fax machines were in every office! Now we have legal operations, contract automation and other new ways of delivering legal support. Younger lawyers will be more versed in these technologies so they should be allowed the opportunity to present these ideas and build business cases for their implementation which again comes back to understanding the value they bring to the business,” he said.
Ms Johnson said it is incumbent on leaders to promote the desirability and unique benefits of in-house practice, particularly to students and graduates.
“We need to ensure a solid pipeline of talent in the future by fostering a larger and more diverse pool of in-house candidates at an earlier stage. But that’s only part of the equation. We also need to ensure that the reality of in-house life also meets those expectations once candidates are in the door,” she said.
“As leaders, we need to remain focused on the quality of our in-house cultures and experiences, so that we can not only attract but also retain the best legal minds in the in-house community. We also need to ensure that we are creating clear pathways for career adventuring where that is desired, and actively fostering opportunities to collaborate and learn from others both within and outside the legal team.”
Leaders, Mr Puranikmath proclaimed, “just need to walk the walk – that is show their teams that they operate flexibly, take up opportunities to work remotely, are aware of others’ working hours and set manageable expectations with their teams”.
“They need to continue to trust their team to deliver their outcomes and goals and allow them to do so in the manner and environment that suits them – provided it doesn’t impact the team or outcome,” he said.
Mr Cameron also noted that in-house leaders need to create opportunities for professional development.
“Nearly all lawyers working in-house that I have met are curious and want to continually learn, whether this is about the business, acquiring general management skills through training or just exploring different areas of the law. While not every wish can be met, we should understand that where there is no promotion opportunity available, we can still develop and offer exposure to new areas to sharpen existing skills or learn new ones,” he said.
Finally, Ms Biggs said that leaders need to continue to pave the way for flexible working, “which has traditionally not been prominent in the legal profession”.
“My personal leadership style focuses on output and clear prioritised goals, which means that I don’t care if a team member wants to go for a surf in the middle of the afternoon, or start later, as long as we’re providing a best-in-class service to the business. I’d like to see this become more common,” she outlined.
Senior legal counsel across the board said there is much to look forward to for Australian solicitors working in corporate jobs, especially given that the in-house sector is “evolving to be seen as an equally prestigious and successful legal path as a firm career”, Mr Puranikmath proclaimed.
“With this, in-house teams are attracting some incredible talent who are able to showcase their legal skill, but also flex into all areas of the business as they demonstrate legal can offer so much more value and input both strategically and commercially,” he said.
Further to the increased percentage of graduates and junior lawyers entering the in-house legal community, Ms Johnson noted, corporate counsel should also be encouraged by increased diversity among law departments – “though we clearly still have a very long way to go”, she conceded.
As the in-house cohort grows in such ways, Mr Cameron deduced, so will its influence on the profession.
“This will lead to swifter innovation in the delivery of legal services, and drive change through private practice at the same time. This will include matters unrelated to providing advice, such as diversity, equity and inclusion which is accelerating rapidly via in-house legal departments,” he said.
Probably the thing that excites Mr Cameron most, however, is the changing perception of the in-house lawyer, “who is now seen as a true partner to the business, and the growing recognition that the best of us are very well-suited to lead organisations in general management or CEO type roles”.
“It is not for everyone, but opens up a whole raft of possibilities to in-house lawyers that are not open to our private practice colleagues. What’s not to like about that?” he said.
Among those possibilities, Ms Biggs said, are chances to upskill in tech and innovation.
“When the lawyers are on the innovation journey, and truly understand the businesses they advise, we become genuine business partners and represent the profession in a better way. I am very passionate about in-house lawyers owning their seat at the leadership table by demonstrating their commercial skills,” she said.
“We are there to advise the business on the risks they should take just as much as the risks they shouldn’t. With businesses now waking up to the benefits of having in-house legal teams, this is the time to own our seats at the table and change the reputation of lawyers.”