Developing and maintaining professional peer networks can seem difficult for time-poor, resource-stretched inhouse lawyers, but it's a worthy investment in time and effort, Zoe Lyon writes.
For private practitioners, particularly those in larger law firms who are surrounded by their peers on a daily basis, the ability to build valuable, professional relationships with other lawyers is pretty much a given.
Firms have the luxury of being able to draw together lawyers with different specialties to work on large matters, and team structures mean that junior lawyers have the opportunity to learn from, and be supported by, their more experienced peers.
However, while industry networking might be taken for granted in private practice, it can prove far more difficult for in-house lawyers, who are often working in small legal teams or perhaps even as their organisation's sole legal practitioner.
ACLA CEO Peter Turner believes a significant hurdle for inhouse lawyers wanting to maintain or develop their professional relationships within the legal industry is simply their lack of time.
The ACLA/CLANZ Legal Benchmarking Report 2008, which surveyed more than 125 in-house legal departments in government and private sector organisations across Australia and New Zealand, found that the biggest problems in-house lawyers face are heavy workloads and significant time pressures. As a result, Turner says, getting out and about to network within the profession can often fall down in-house lawyers' priority list.
Jil Toovey - the director of the Institute of Knowledge Development, which runs professional development courses for lawyers - agrees that time pressures can be a significant roadblock to inhouse lawyers developing their professional networks. "If they're struggling to keep on top of the workload, the last thing on their mind is actually getting out there and thinking 'Who do I need to be getting to know?'," she says.
Turner cites a number of other factors than can hinder in-house lawyers' networking opportunities, such as geographic isolation (particularly for those working in rural or regional areas), working within an organisation that is part of a small industry, and in some cases, gender issues.
"Still, in quite a few industries. women are struggling to make themselves part of the mainstream," he says.
A worthy investment
Despite the obstacles that in-house lawyers often face in connecting and developing relationships with their peers, it can be well worth making the time and effort to do so.
Turner explains that relatively junior lawyers can often find themselves in senior in-house positions. But, unlike private practitioners in larger law firms, they won't necessarily have more experienced colleagues to support them. This experience, Turner says, can be quite intimidating, but connecting with more experienced peers external to their organisation who can offer guidance can help alleviate this pressure.
Helen Vickers is now a partner at Henry Davis York, but prior to that spent more than 12 years in senior in-house positions within government agencies. She says that for new government lawyers, who are trying to learn the ropes, forming relationships with more experienced government lawyers can prove invaluable.
"In government there are lots of rules and some of them are not written - they're policy-driven - and particularly when you're new to a government role you have no idea of what the parameters are. So it can often be really helpful if you know somebody somewhere else to find out how things are done," she says.
"People are generally very helpful, I've found. They'll take the time to give advice or they'll say 'This person knows about that, go and talk to them'."
Vickers adds that maintaining regular contact with her government agency peers was also useful when it came to briefing external lawyers. "You can cross-refer other lawyers. Often in government someone will ring up and say 'I've got this particular problem, who's really good in town who can help us with that?'," she explains.
Turner believes successful networking, and developing a respected reputation within the in-house space, is also crucial to an inhouse lawyer's career advancement.
"All kinds of lawyers thrive on contacts and knowledge, and in that context who you know is just as important as what you know. It's who you know up the line, it's who you know amongst your peers, it's who you know climbing up the ladder," he says.
"So, in my experience, lawyers need to be up to date - and that's not just technically. They need to know what's going on in the business scene in the industry they're involved in and be able to anticipate what's coming. Contacts and knowledge enhance that kind of visibility. If you're seen in the inhouse context as someone who's switched on, knows what's happening and has the right people to talk to, you're going to be very visible and it's going to enhance your career prospects enormously."
There are various ways in-house lawyers can start to develop professional networks within the legal profession, ranging from attending legal conferences to joining online professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.
Turner believes that despite the obvious advantages technology can bring in terms of time savings, face-to-face interaction is the most effective networking method and worth the time investment.
"My own feeling is that the tried and true method of building professional relationships and maintaining them going forward, is still face to face ... I'm not as convinced by technology as perhaps some are," he says.
He points to conferences, industry group meetings, educational courses, pro bono work and legal industry social events as key ways for in-house lawyers to expand their contact base.
Toovey agrees that these face-to-face forums can be used effectively, but she suggests in-house lawyers should be strategic in their approach.
"Given that [in-house lawyers] are so task-focused and like to have a purpose about what they're doing, [it can help to] set some specific objectives for themselves such as 'I'm going to a business function, I will endeavour to meet five key managers and find out from them what keeps them awake at night, and what are their business challenges'. So they set mini research objectives," she says.
HDY's Vickers also points to information seminars run by law firms as good networking opportunities, particularly because they are often targeted towards in-house lawyers within specific industry sectors.
The jury is still out on whether social and professional networking platforms will prove fruitful. Turner is more sceptical, believing technology's greatest advantage will be in improving flexibility and freeing up time for lawyers to take part in face-to-face forums, which he believes to be more effective.
Toovey believes technology platforms can be effective, but again emphasises that a strategic approach is needed. "You have to be very focussed with the social networking medium about how you promote yourself and who you want to connect with and why - but I know quite a few in-house lawyers who are consciously using Twitter to connect with lawyers, to gather information and to raise their profile in a broader sense," she says.
"I think [technological networking platforms] are definitely going to be a big thing over the next ten years, but I think that you have to focus on what you're trying to achieve, dedicate time to do that, and make sure that it's delivering the results that you want."
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