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Alarm bells raised over lack of sustainability in in-house careers

While often seen as the better choice for work/life balance, a career in-house has its risks of becoming unsustainable, according to one expert.

user iconEmma Musgrave 28 November 2023 Corporate Counsel
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Appearing on a recent episode of The Corporate Counsel Show, Anthony Kearns, chief client experience officer and consulting practice group leader at Lander & Rogers, spoke about how the career choice of in-house counsel may be becoming more unsustainable than in years past.

In his role, Mr Kearns works directly with corporate counsel to enhance the performance and value of the legal supply chain to the organisations they serve.

“I work with in-house lawyers, general counsel and in-house legal teams of larger corporates in optimising the performance of the legal supply chain,” he explained.


“So, what I mean by that is, generally, I’m doing the human components of that. I’ll collaborate with our iHUB in respect to the technology enablement components of that and the workflow analysis. But I work in the human space, so I’m a humanist, and it’s still 99 per cent a human supply chain.

“I look at human performance, I look at stakeholder experience of in-house legal, then I look at how the adaptive work, basically, that’s required within the legal function to optimise the value to the organisation – in a nutshell.”

There are myriad challenges impacting the way in which in-house teams operate in today’s climate, according to Mr Kearns, which play a big part in the suitability of one’s practice over time.

A big one, he noted, is the idea of “doing more with less” – a concept often expressed within the function that sees teams understaffed and unsupported.

“The ‘more for less’ is a dangerous thing to say to highly conscientious people and the people who are paying the price,” Mr Kearns said.

“What you’re essentially saying is that you need to do more, and we’re going to give you less support … So, I think that language in itself we need to challenge.”

Another key challenge relates to life cycle issues impacting teams, Mr Kearns said.

“The reason I’m so concerned at the moment – and it’s a generalisation to say that all in-house legal functions and roles are unsustainable [because] there are some that are well designed, well structured, and operating within constraints and are properly bounded and are operating at a sustainable level – [however] there are some life cycle issues that I think people going into these roles should really start to pay attention to as part of their own due diligence.

“For example, if you’re being approached by a scale-up [firm that’s] approaching an exit event, be it IPO or trade sale, I’d be very worried about joining their legal team, only because you’re a cost centre that really will be working harder than ever, but also you got an imperative to reduce the cost base.

“That’s a difficult place to operate in.”

General wellbeing matters is another area Mr Kearns flagged as being a great concern in the in-house space, noting that he’s “finding work practices that are objectively unsustainable and [are experiencing] higher levels of distress among what I consider to be a highly resilient population”.

“This is where I think I diverge a bit from common discussion around this stuff. I actually think that lawyers are among the most resilient population I’ve ever worked with. This is not a resilience problem. This is not an individual resilience problem. This is a design problem,” he said.

“What I’m seeing is that they’re operating in systems that are structurally unsustainable. A lot of my coaching clients are working not only till 10pm, 11pm, 12am at night – they’re working over every weekend and are unable to take leave because of the fear of things just being dropped.

“There’s not a system around them to allow them to step away from work for any substantial periods of time. I think they battle on because they’re highly conscientious and resilient, [but] that doesn’t mean that it’s safe.

“And I think that the trigger for me, for this conversation now, is the release of the model Work Health and Safety Regulations, which prescribe psychosocial hazards within the workplace. And a lot of the teams I’m working with tick all of those boxes; all those hazards are constantly present.”

NB: This transcript has been edited slightly for publishing purposes. You can listen to the full episode here:

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