It’s a common question: how do you become an in-house lawyer? Is there a good time to make the move? How do you prepare, via secondments or other relevant experience? What qualities make a great in-house lawyer?
Joanne Glanz, Manager Career Services for the Law School at the University of NSW, previously worked as an executive consultant with Mahlab Recruitment for 25 years. She is well-aware of the questions and concerns many lawyers have as they consider a move in-house and shares her observations with Insights.
“In-house is a very different environment to a law firm, especially as most in-house teams are still relatively small – often between three to six lawyers,” Glanz said.
“In an economy where legal teams have limited resources for external legal spend, in-house lawyers have definitely proven their worth and the teams have been steadily increasing in size over the years.”
For younger lawyers looking to establish a career in-house, Glanz recommends waiting until you have a few years legal experience under your belt.
“The majority of young lawyers look to move in-house around the three-year mark, when they feel they have developed some core legal skills and are reasonably comfortable with most of the work that comes their way,” she said.
“Most junior roles are pitched somewhere between 2-4 years or 3-5 years post qualification experience. The mid-level roles are looking for lawyers with 5-8 years’ experience.”
“I suggest canvassing opportunities as they come along. Keep up to date on what roles are in the market, what salaries are on offer and actively pursue those that are of interest or look promising. Definitely consider jumping ship if you feel it’s a good move at that stage of your career.”
Each in-house scenario is different and opportunities for career advancement may lie elsewhere. As such, Glanz advises proactivity.
“As a general rule, the in-house lawyer needs to take their career into their own hands and take a highly proactive, strategic approach,” she said. “Unlike a law firm, there is not necessarily a defined career path in the company you move to. For example, in an in-house team of three, as the junior lawyer, the people above you would have to move on. That’s not to say there aren’t good lateral moves within the company – you may be able to move into a commercial, strategic or management role with your employer or sometimes overseas.”
Glanz also recommends that would-be in-house lawyers cast their net beyond conventional legal roles.
“I don’t think lawyers should limit their job search to traditional areas of legal practice,” she said.
“For example, the major trading and investment banks, consultancies and professional services firms all have graduate recruitment programs and are keen to employ law graduates.”
When asked what prospective employers are looking for in their ideal in-house candidates, Glanz cites commerciality and relatable experience as important attributes.
“Employers are generally looking for a solid base of commercial experience – either corporate/M&A experience if you are coming from a major firm or good, broad commercial experience,” she said. “Well-developed drafting skills and a commercial ‘feel’ are important. If you’ve been on secondment to a company, it’s a plus, but at a junior level, it’s not a necessity.”
In terms of desirable traits for in-house lawyers, Glanz highlights flexibility, the ability to prioritise and juggle workloads and most importantly, “your fit”, both in terms of the team and with the culture of the organisation as a whole.
The ability to balance legal advice with the commercial drivers affecting the business is also very important. “Corporations do not want ‘black and white’ legal advice that blocks their initiatives,” she said. “Management is looking for advice that is creative and commercial in approach to enable the business to flourish and grow.”
If you're looking to further develop your skills and knowledge prior to moving in-house, consider continuing your studies via our Postgraduate Specialisation programs or our Master of Legal Business programs.