18 November 2014

In the House – How not to be an Average In-House Lawyer

Published on 18 November 2014
For some, the prospect of working as an in-house lawyer is considered the Holy Grail of legal careers. Those who practise in-house are often afforded more autonomy, greater pay, less pressure, and much like Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen from The Godfather, they are granted the luxury of only serving one client. However, like practitioners in any other area of law, in-house lawyers must avoid a plethora of pitfalls if they hope to excel at their craft. To help guide you on your path, Insights has compiled a list of steps to take to ensure you won’t end up an average in-house lawyer.

1. Be more than a lawyer
College of Law Adjunct Lecturer Allan Luu says there is a growing assumption that in-house lawyers provide more than legal service.

“There has been a clear move away from purely legal adviser role to a more involving role that now demands commercial acumen, problem-solving, being able to provide commercially and practically relevant advice,” Luu said.

“There is a greater expectation to be a ’jack of all trades‘ and not just a lawyer.”

2. Remember your legal duty
Legal Counsel at Glencore Grain and Viterra and College of Law alumnus Alicia Burgemeister says it can be difficult to balance your professional ambition with your responsibilities to the legal system.

“In-house lawyers should carefully consider their actions when requiring legal privilege over a document as the lines of legal privilege can often get blurred in-house,” Burgemeister said.

“In-house lawyers often get some pushback from the business when providing advice which they do not want to hear. Whilst you want to enable the business to undertake activities, you need to remember that your duty to the court is paramount.”

3. Broaden your legal knowledge
Instead of specialising in a particular area of law, Luu says it is important to ensure your knowledge of the law is as diverse as possible.

“Gain as broad a skillset as possible, particularly if you've recently made the move from private practice where, in all likelihood, you were a specialist in a narrow area of practice,” he said.

“Core areas to get familiar with regardless of your role and the organisation you land in: drafting and negotiating commercial contracts, industrial relations, intellectual property, competition, consumer laws, Personal Property and Securities Act regime, and work health and safety. These are core areas in addition to whatever regulations govern the particular industry the organisation sits in.”

4. Learn about the business you’re advising
While this may seem like an obvious step, it can be surprising how many early-stage in-house lawyers overlook it: to work effectively as an in-house lawyer, an in-depth knowledge of your employer’s specific industry is required.

“Try and engage yourself with the business as much as possible,” Burgemeister said.

“In order to do this it is important that you learn about the business you work for so that you can provide practical, relevant advice.”

Attending industry events and conferences, reading up on news relevant to the industry, and even asking colleagues for advice can be easy methods to ensure you learn what you need to give your employer your best.