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In-house in training (1)

The in-house legal sector has proven its worth during the downturn, with businesses showing an unprecedented willingness to retain their legal talent. However, retaining existing staff is one…

The in-house legal sector has proven its worth during the downturn, with businesses showing an unprecedented willingness to retain their legal talent.

However, retaining existing staff is one matter - hiring new staff another one entirely. In the aftermath of the worst economic glut in more than a decade, businesses are proceeding with caution on all fronts, and recruitment is no exception. And even with the market showing the first tentative signs of recovery, private practitioners looking to make the move in-house should brace themselves for a challenge.

However, being aware of some the specific skills and experience that in-house employers will be seeking will help in getting ahead of the pack.

In-house holding its own

Australian Corporate Lawyers Association CEO Peter Turner believes that the in-house sector has weathered the downturn with "remarkable resilience". "We certainly haven't escaped unscathed, but we haven't seen the wholesale redundancies that we saw in previous downturns," he says.

Turner attributes this trend to the improvement in the status of in-house lawyers that has occurred over the past decade.

"We've got to a point where the value-add of in-house counsel has been really well recognised and so the tendency has been to hang on to in-house counsel in this environment," he says

Turner's view is shared by Joanne Glanz, an executive consultant at Mahlab Recruitment. "In-house teams have stayed very stable," she says. "They've obviously proven their worth in the last 10 to 15 years since they've been set up. They've obviously got quality teams and they're showing that they are a reasonable cost saver in terms of doing the legal work and managing external firms."

The current market

While in-house redundancies have been kept to a relative minimum, new opportunities have been few and far between over the last six to 12 months.

"[Six months ago] there were just no opportunities around for people looking to either make a move from one in-house position to another or from private practice to their first in-house role," says Tania Adlam, in-house consultant at Dolman.

However the recruiters that Lawyers Weekly spoke to agree that the market has recently started to show the first - albeit hesitant - signs of turning around, with a small number of positions arising in certain industry pockets.

Brian Rollo, an in-house consultant at Taylor Root explains: "There are still some areas of in-house which are dead - debt capital markets, derivatives, structured finance are all still absolutely dead. But the fact that we're starting to see some banking roles, some private equity positions and some property roles - that's a good sign."

Glanz agrees, saying that the market is "definitely more positive".

"There are some green shoots out there. It's being very carefully done, but they are recruiting," she says. "We've had a few roles in the IT sector, we've had roles for really specialised IP skills, and another area which has picked up enormously is infrastructure and property development."

Making the shift

Even with the in-house recruitment market slowly springing back to life, snapping up an in-house role straight from private practice isn't as easy as it once was.

Rollo says that two to three years ago - when the labour market was at its tightest - in-house employers recognised the need to be accommodating when it came to recruiting new talent. In particular, he says, employers were willing to be flexible when it came to matching up a candidate's technical legal skills with the role on offer.

"Over the last few years, when candidate shortages were quite intense, many in-house people ... would say 'I'm more concerned about making sure this person can come in and build good business relationships, and I'm sure they can pick up the technical stuff as they go along'," he says. "So the ideal fit might be an insurance lawyer, but if you were a good general financial services lawyer with solid experience, and maybe you'd touched on insurance, then that was close enough."

However, since being caught offguard by the GFC, Rollo says employers are taking a much more conservative approach to recruitment and now aren't as willing to make concessions.

"With the downturn there's been a lot more focus on costs and risk management when people are hiring, and so we've found that flexibility around technical fit has almost disappeared. Our clients are really focussing on ensuring [candidates] tick all the boxes on the technical side first because they want to make sure they're managing the risk of getting the wrong person," he says.

In addition, he says, there is now a perception among employers that the market balance has shifted, and that with an increased candidate pool, they can afford to be more selective when it comes to recruiting. However, while he believes that perception is accurate to an extent - and that there are more candidates around - he says they aren't necessarily of the quality employers expect.

"There are certainly more [candidates] than there have been at any time that I can remember, but we've tended to find that the quality has been quite variable ... and there aren't as many top-class candidates around as people might think there are," he says.

"However, there is that perception, and so people think they can cherrypick and get [someone] with the exact [technical] experience, whereas in the past they couldn't."

Best foot forward

When it comes to maximising the prospects of securing an in-house role, the recruiters Lawyers Weekly spoke to emphasised that technical legal skills alone won't be enough to get you across the line.

According to Dolman's Adlam, while technical excellence might be the number-one priority for law firms looking for private practitioners, in-house employers will also want evidence of a candidate's ability to commercially and practically apply those technical skills. "Commerciality would be the leading skill people looked for," she says.

On top of that, Adlam says, during the recruitment process, in-house employers will also seek assurance that a candidate has the necessary interpersonal skills to effectively handle the unique requirements of an in-house role.

"Cultural fit, your attitude, the way you interact with and fit into a team, and the way you interact with your internal customers become very important - so technical excellence is really only half the picture," she says.

Rollo agrees, saying that these interpersonal skills play a much more central role in in-house positions than they do in private practice, and must, therefore, be demonstrated by candidates during the interview process. "In private practice you're working in an environment where you're surrounded by other lawyers and ... you're shielded from the client side a little bit," he says.

"But for the in-house market, it's absolutely key for candidates to be able to convince their interviewers that, not only do they have that solid technical background ... but also that they can build relationships with the businesspeople they deal with on a daily basis. So that means being able to communicate well with them - talk to them in everyday language - and being able to influence them as a business partner."

ACLA's Turner says good leadership skills are also crucial. "Even if they don't have a team of their own, as they may be sole counsel, they still have the lead the legal resource - the external counsel - and it can be quite challenging for a single person to have the control of the budget of a major law firm," he says.

Rollo believes that having secondment experience on your CV is also an advantage, saying that it serves as a risk management device for both parties. "There's definitely a risk attached to moving from private practice to in-house for the first time - both for the candidate and the employee," he says. "So this should show that you've already experienced in-house - you've tasted it, you like what you've seen, and you want more of it."

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