Moving in-house is a popular career choice for mid-career to senior lawyers. The lure of freedom from billable hours and better work life balance is appealing, particularly for lawyers coming from private practice. Insights spoke to John Steadman, who currently works as an in-house counsel for Chorus New Zealand after spending 12 years working for Telecom New Zealand and nine years in private practice. John shared his experiences and advice for lawyers looking to succeed as in-house counsel.
- A shift in mindset is essential
Working in-house is a completely different experience to private practice, observed John. For many, this will require a shift in mindset.
“For a start you are a cost to the business not a fee earner,” said John. “In a law firm, lawyers are top of the food chain while in-house you need to realise the business does not revolve around legal. You will not be resourced as well as in private practice and you definitely won’t have a secretary or admin person to look after you. In exchange however, you will be able to get really close to the business and be deeply involved in amazing legal opportunities that will rarely come about in private practice. You will be involved in very interesting legal work on a daily basis.”
John’s in-house roles have seen him involved in the build and operation of a $1B 4G mobile network, supporting media streaming for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and helping to establish a mobile cell site in Antarctica
“I worked on satellite communications - as close as I'll ever get to space!” said John. “I’ve worked on fibre optic submarine cables - as close as I’ll ever get to being a pirate!”
- Get to know the business
To truly succeed in-house, lawyers must get to know the business intimately, as soon as possible.
“The biggest mistake young in-house lawyers make is not getting to know the business or their clients well in the early stages” observed John. “No one in the business is going to be impressed that you know the answer to a legal question. It is expected that you know the law. What will set you apart is what value you can bring in addition to your core legal skills. Lawyers who know how the company’s products and services work and can help people navigate the internal bureaucracy of the organisation will be highly valued. Try to be more than just a black letter lawyer.”
- Think of yourself as a brand
According to John, it is important to consider your ‘brand’ in the business.
“You automatically know who Coca-Cola and Amazon are,” said John. “What are you going to be known for in your business? Are you the guru that ensures marketing is legally compliant? The person that keeps people out of jail? The trouble shooter that people turn to when there is a big problem? Decide on your brand and promote yourself.”
“Also practice your elevator pitch,” advised John. “If you are ever in the lift with the CEO and she asks you what you do, you want to be able to articulate your value to the organisation. Fumbling your words and saying “I am part of the legal team” will not cut it. Careers can be made or lost in elevators with CEOs.”
- Be curious and active
In-house lawyers will be regarded as valuable the more involved and active they are in the business.
“Never pass up on opportunities to get involved,” said John. “Get as much breadth and experience as you possibly can within your organisation. The more you know about your organisation, how it functions, key stakeholders, its products and services, the better in-house lawyer you will become.”
- Start in private practice
Unlike law firms, few organisations are resourced to train junior lawyers.
“That is why most in-house legal roles look for a minimum of 3-5 years experience,” said John. “To give yourself the best opportunity, identify the sector you want to work in and then get as much experience as you can in private practice to set yourself up for a move in-house. Sometimes in larger firms, secondment opportunities may come up and this can lead to permanent roles in an in-house legal team.”
Want to learn more about practising in-house? Download our guide to a career in-house here.