Making the most of your in-house career

Author Sarah Ingwersen
April 12, 2019

Taylor Root has been active in the in-house legal market since 1989, helping candidates to make the move from private practice and to navigate the different stages of their in-house career.

In association with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) we hosted an event on “Managing your In-House Career”, which quickly turned into an extremely constructive discussion not only on how to manage your in-house career but on the strategies and tactics to ensure that you excel in it. 

We heard from both Senior Legal Counsels and General Counsels (GCs) who were very candid about their motivations for making the move, as well as the challenges they’ve encountered and the strategies they’ve used to overcome them.

Many thanks to the moderators: 

  • Hans Albers, President of the ACC Europe and Chief of Staff Legal & Associate General Counsel, Juniper Networks
  • Radhika Rani, United Kingdom Country Representative of the ACC and Senior Legal Counsel, Hewlett Packard Enterprise

And the panellists:

  • Chris Fowler, General Counsel, BT Technology and Transformation
  • Tish Clyde, VP Global Head of Labour & Employment Legal, Nokia
  • Jeremy Barton, General Counsel, KPMG UK
  • Sarah Ingwersen, Partner & Head of In-House, Taylor Root

Understand the business and your role within it 

All of the speakers and panellists were keen to emphasise one important fact: business needs will always prevail over legal concerns. This means that, as an in-house lawyer, you are there to enable business and facilitate transactions, which often means taking a more pragmatic approach than you would in private practice. It also means thinking of yourself as a business person above being a lawyer. 

Comparisons were made between the level of advice, and how it’s delivered, in private practice and in-house. In private practice, the emphasis is on dotting every single ‘i’, crossing every last ‘t’ and ensuring that the most comprehensive advice is delivered, which can often lead to reams of legalese. In-house, this approach simply won’t work. 

It’s often the case that you need to be able to give a quick answer off the cuff, and that it’s better to deliver advice that is 80% correct within a commercially viable timeframe than advice that is perfect yet hinders commercial activity. After all, nobody wants a reputation as a bottleneck.

As an enabler of business, it also pays to establish your areas of responsibility early on and where it is that you add commercial value – especially if you’re at GC level. For instance, it may be that HR wish you to be involved but that does not mean that it’s in the organisation’s best interests, particularly if it’s not your area of expertise or does not sit within the remit of your job role.

Furthermore, you need to thoroughly understand your position with regards to legal privilege as it does vary between jurisdictions.

Manage your time effectively

The panellists laid to rest the idea that being in-house is a 9 to 5 role. They explained that a 9 to 5 may be the case for the commercial teams, but it certainly isn’t for any business services teams who are there to support and enable the smooth running of transactions. So, if a salesperson manages to close a deal towards the close of play, it then falls to the legal team to put together and agree contracts within whatever timeframe has been specified. This is, however, countered by the excitement of being so closely involved with deals and the commercial experience this brings.

The culture shock of not having any admin support was also raised. In private practice, it falls to an executive assistant to reconcile any expenses as well as to provide diary management support. This isn’t the case inhouse where it is your responsibility alone to manage your time, your diary and your relationships – there is no buffer between yourself and the client. Although this can be daunting at first, and often remains the same even at GC level, it does enable you to establish close working relationships with your stakeholders.

Manage your personal brand

Following from this, managing your personal brand is extremely important. The exposure to commercial teams and the close working relationships you’re able to form with them are unparalleled in private practice, meaning that a career in-house is an excellent opportunity to cement your reputation as a commercially astute lawyer with both internal and external audiences.

The transition to no longer being “the star” of the business, and how this interacts with your personal brand, was also raised. In private practice, if you’re a really good lawyer then you have huge earning potential, which in turn builds your personal brand and reputation within the firm. In-house, it’s an entirely different story with the sales team being “the stars” as, ultimately, they are the fee earners.

This means that, as an in-house lawyer, your soft skills are what help to establish your reputation. Although you may at first view being contacted through business messenger services as an inconvenience, it’s actually a show of faith in your legal abilities as well as how you interact with stakeholders. This may be a double-edged sword in terms of workload, but it really should be seen as a compliment – it means you’re seen as an enabler of business and not a bottleneck.

It’s also important to be proactive in raising your internal profile through, for example, asking to join other department’s team meetings or client meetings. Aside from the profile raising benefits, it also aids your understanding of commercial operations, enabling you to provide better and more tailored legal advice. As well as managing your brand and reputation with the commercial teams, it’s also vital that you do so within the legal function itself. In large organisations where there is a sizable legal department, covering a number of separate disciplines, it pays to build a profile.

It also pays to build an open and communicative relationship with your manager. Given the multiple, fast-paced workstreams and internal relationships of an in-house lawyer, any potential issues must be flagged early on. This helps to mitigate any potential negative impact on commercial objectives, as well as ensuring you maintain your manager’s trust.

Network and build relationships

Outside of your organisation, other in-house lawyers and your external counsel are valuable sources of information and guidance. Other in-house lawyers often encounter the same issues – whether that’s due to a large piece of legislation being enacted, such as GDPR, or with managing internal stakeholders. Furthermore, your wider in-house network may be a route to resolution. One of the panellists referenced how knowing their opposite number on a transaction meant they were able to resolve an issue and avoid a costly conflict.

It’s also important to maintain and build your relationships with lawyers in private practice, and particularly with your external counsel. As an in-house lawyer, the likelihood is that you will be using external counsel for one of two reasons (or perhaps both). Firstly, that the aspect of the law in question lies outside your area of expertise or, secondly, that you lack the manpower to deal with it internally.

For both of these reasons external counsel is being used in a high-pressure situation and a prompt resolution is therefore required. Having a robust relationship with external counsel is therefore extremely beneficial.

Find a mentor

Lastly, the importance of a mentor cannot be underestimated. They are there to help guide you through your career and can provide vital support, both from a technical perspective as well as emotionally. It may be that there are mentorship programmes available within your organisation or wider networking groups that you can make use of, or perhaps you’re able to find a mentor through more organic means. Either way, the support and guidance a mentor offers is invaluable.

To find out more about in-house opportunities, please contact Sarah Ingwersen.

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