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The unbeaten track for inhouse lawyers

The unbeaten track for inhouse lawyers

In recent years the road from private practice to in-house has been transformed into more of a highway. Many organisations, recognising the many benefits of having top legal talent at their…

In recent years the road from private practice to in-house has been transformed into more of a highway. Many organisations, recognising the many benefits of having top legal talent at their fingertips, have ramped up their internal legal capacity. And there's certainly been no shortage of quality lawyers - some disenfranchised by private practice, some just looking for a change - willing to make the move to in-house.

What's often forgotten, however, is that it's not just a one-way street, and while the path from in-house life back into private practice is not as well-worn, it's one that a number of lawyers - for various reasons - have chosen to take.

Welcome to the real world

The prospect of working in-house holds somewhat of a mystical appeal for many private practitioners - the opportunity to be in the thick of the action, to have a role in strategic commercial decision-making, and to toss out the time sheets just some of the cited drawcards.

However, Kirsty Spears, manager of Hughes Castell in Sydney, notes that candidates are sometimes simply not prepared for some of the perhaps less desirable, practical, day-to-day realities of life for many in-house lawyers.

"We've had candidates who have said they didn't like working in an open-plan environment. There's also the lack of legally specific resources, and perhaps not having access to the same type of research materials and things like that because it's not a priority for the particular company to [provide] access to that," she says.

"They also find that they're expected to be more self-sufficient than in a law firm, so they perhaps don't have the same level of secretarial support or administrative support that they have grown to expect."

Spears says that some lawyers also have difficulty making the mental shift from being at the forefront of an organisation, surrounded by - in some cases - hundreds of other lawyers, to working in a small team in a support function role.

"Particularly in Australia, there aren't that many companies that have large legal teams of lawyers - they tend to be quite small teams. And when you're used to working in an organisation where every second person is a lawyer, that can be quite difficult to deal with," she says.

Where to from here?

Spears says that another issue sometimes raised by in-house lawyers looking to move back to a law firm is that their work lacks the degree of intellectual challenge that is available in private practice.

"A lot of the more difficult and more complicated work is outsourced - mainly as a risk management strategy these days - and so you're not getting your hands on some of the more meaty, complex problems," she explains. "[In-house work] can involve managing [a complex] project - but the actual technical work is being done by your external lawyers and I think sometimes people miss the technical and intellectual challenge."

A desire to seek out new challenges was one of the reasons Baker & McKenzie partner Andrew Stewart decided, three-and-a-half years ago, to move from a seemingly sexy in-house role at television network Channel Nine back into private practice.

Stewart explained that as a specialist media litigator, the opportunities for career development in-house became limited as he became more experienced, and he believed there would be greater scope to broaden his experience in a law firm environment.

"For the first three or four years most of the things I was doing [at Channel Nine] were fairly new and I was still learning a lot ... [but by the end] ... it was becoming a bit familiar," he explains. "I was looking for new challenges [but], having a predominantly litigation background, a general counsel role wasn't really an option, because when they look to fill those roles they look for someone with more broad commercial experience."

FCB Workplace Lawyers senior associate - and former Telstra in-house lawyer - Chris Gianatti describes a similar experience. At Telstra, Gianatti worked as a specialist employment and industrial relations lawyer within the HR Legal division, and he says that as he became more experienced, the opportunities to progress his career within his field of specialty started to dry up. "Because it's such a specialist role, it eventually becomes limiting," he says.

Gianatti explains that while there were opportunities at Telstra to progress further by moving into a more generalist commercial legal role, if he wanted to stick with his employment law speciality, private practice was a more promising option.

The spice of life

Though the situation might be different for more generalist commercial in-house lawyers, for specialists such as Gianatti and Stewart, private practice can offer a broader range of work, dealing with a more diverse client base, than an in-house role.

Gianatti confirms that one of the highlights of having moved back into private practice - a jump he made six months ago - has been the opportunity to work across a broader client base, particularly given his area of expertise.

"I'm now working across many industries and businesses rather than just one," he says. "Particularly with the current issues in workplace relations at the moment - they're industry-wide issues. With award modernisation ... that involves oil and gas, maritime, manufacturing, food processing - all that kind of stuff. So you really get to see the Australian economy as a whole."

For Stewart, too, the move back to private practice has led to a broadening of the scope of work he's involved in, and more exposure to work not necessarily within his field of expertise.

"I think there's probably more variation in private practice - you get to work on a wider range of things," he says. "And I really enjoy when a bit of work comes in from one of my clients that's not necessarily within my area, and I get to work with other partners or associates within the firm and understand the different perspectives they have. Understanding the drivers and different aspects of the business is really enjoyable."

King of the castle

For Sparke Helmore consultant and former ASIC executive director Jan Redfern, a key drawcard of moving back into private practice from an in-house role was the opportunity to establish and develop her own specialist practice - or as she puts it: "to be my own boss".

Before joining Sparke Helmore late last year, Redfern had been with ASIC for nearly 10 years, starting as general counsel of the NSW office, moving up to become the deputy executive director of the national organisation, and finally becoming the executive director.

By the time she left the organisation she was on the executive team and had supervision of some 400 staff, however she was lured by the opportunity private practice offered to build and manage her own practice.

"Partners, senior associates and consultants in law firms can be more the masters of their own destiny and entrepreneurs," she explains. "I think that's got a good side and a difficult side. It challenges you to identify where your strengths and weaknesses are, what your points of difference are, and to push yourself outside those boundaries. I think a part of that is that is does make you constantly re-examine yourself and what you're doing, and how you're going about it."

Stewart also points to the business development side of private practice as a highlight of his new career path.

"The biggest obligation you have as partner is to build your part of the business, and that brings with it certain pressures and needs. Partners in a modern law firm have to be all things in some senses. You need to find the work, dish out the work, you've got to build the relationships, and you're responsible for the financial side ... but I enjoy that part about what I do," he says.

"When you're an in-house lawyer quite often you do have greater involvement in the decision-making process ... but it's not yours. I feel this is more mine."

Relearning the ropes

Though she'd previously worked in private practice for 16 years before moving to ASIC, Redfern believes her experience working in-house has given her an advantage moving back, because she's now able to approach clients' problems with a more commercially focused mindset.

"I saw [moving back into private practice] as an opportunity to be able to use the knowledge that I had gained," she says. "Lawyers in private practice are generally less commercial. They tend to focus on the right, the wrong and the answer, as opposed to the solution. That's where I think I'm very different to how I was 10 years ago. In an in-house role that's something that's constantly challenging you and testing you. [You ask] 'Why would you do that? What's the point of it? What are the implications and where's the value add?'"

Gianatti also believes that having worked in-house has allowed him to hone certain skills that now assist him in his private practice role. One he highlights is his improved ability to work flexibly. "In-house you are literally spinning plates - you have so much on," he says. "All my ability to work flexibly and the skills associated with that have come from working in-house.

"You learn so much about work on the road, and multitasking and working efficiently. It's the type of skills you develop in being responsive and meeting expectations in a way that you can literally reduce that advice to two or three dot points on the page."

Lawyers seeking to move back to private practice from in-house roles are undoubtedly fewer and further between, however the pros and cons of each type of practice are not as clearcut as they might first seem.

For specialist lawyers, private practice can sometimes offer a greater diversity of work and more room for career advancement, while some lawyers simply relish the opportunity to manage their own specialist practice - and call all the shots - rather than working beneath a senior executive team. So for some in-house lawyers, perhaps the private practice route is worth a test drive.

>> For the latest news, views and analysis of issues affecting in-house lawyers, check out Lawyers Weekly's dedicated in-house site

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