Advice on Moving from Private Practice to an In-House Role
Q&A with a Head of Legal and Legal Counsel
Working in-house is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition for a lot of lawyers. The appeal of no time recording, an increased emphasis on ‘commerciality’ and a seemingly more agile and flexible working environment are all very alluring factors for lawyers weighing up their career options. That said, we find that many lawyers are not aware of, or inadequately prepared for, the challenges that they will encounter when transitioning into their role as Legal Counsel.
In a bid to answer some of the most common questions we encounter from lawyers making the transition, we sat down with Jeranne Kosviner, former Head of Legal, Risk and Compliance at Cushman and Wakefield, and Karina Veling, and experienced Legal Counsel, to hear their thoughts.
Why did you make the move in-house?
Jeranne: I wanted a broader scope of work. I wanted to skate across all types of corporate legal matters and be involved in front end and back end work (as opposed to only litigation). I also wanted to be more involved in the matters I was working on, wanted to be closer to the action and decision-making.
Karina: I actually took a different path to most law students finishing university and starting my career in-house. I was very lucky to secure a graduate in-house position, and was intrigued by what was positioned as a varied role rather than a traditional law firm spot in a defined practice area. I loved that I could practically apply both my business subjects and law subjects, and work with a broad range of commercial teams.
What are the main personal and professional and/or personal characteristics you look for when you hire a candidate for a Legal Counsel role?
Jeranne: Sharp astute legal mind; Commercial nous; Pragmatism and ability to see the big picture; and Team player.
I believe you need all of these elements in an in-house lawyer if you want to have a solidly performing legal department that can influence the organisation successfully and one that team members and the rest of the organisation enjoy working with.
Karina: The biggest thing for me are the soft skills – how well you can get along with your colleagues (who are really your clients) and the ability to engage with and influence all members of an organisation. Moving from private practice, your colleagues will no longer just be lawyers – it will be procurement staff, sales teams, engineers and finance folk. Having a flexible commercial mindset, and advising without the legal jargon, is important.
What are the key differences between working in-house and working in private practice?
Jeranne: There are the obvious things like billing, time sheets etc but the biggest difference for me is that you are much closer to the decision making and have to live with the outcomes of these matters – you don’t get to simply hand over your advice or run the matter and then be done with it. The risks that the client faces are in fact your daily reality, even if the matters originate in other departments of the company. You are part of that company and the successes and failures are yours as much as any other employee/officer of the company.
Karina: From my experience, a key difference is how you work with clients. In private practice, I had a very ‘on and off’ relationship with my clients – they came to me when they needed help and that was it. I never knew what happened beyond my advice – did they sign the SaaS deal or end up terminating that consultant? In all honestly, it left me feeling a little empty. In-house is very different, where you are involved in most, if not all, company decisions – you’re very much a part of the internal decision making process which is fantastic. You really become more than a lawyer.
Do you think there is an ‘ideal time’ to move in-house (i.e. should lawyers wait until a certain PQE level before they consider moving)?
Jeranne: Yes, I think ideally lawyers would obtain 3-5 years in private practice first. It instils a certain discipline and work ethic and provides solid training from exposure to various matters, various clients, industries etc. The flip side is developing myopia based on only your internal in-house experience because you may only see matters relating to one company for the formative years of your legal career.
Karina: No, definitely not – I think it’s more of a personal vibe rather than a specific PQE or time period. That vibe will differ from person to person. A lot of it may be about wanting more, mainly around experience in a commercial environment or expanding the application of a law degree. Lawyers at all levels can be suited to in-house life – it’s all about your personal experience and drivers.
What are some key tips that you’d give lawyers moving in-house for the first time?
Jeranne: Be flexible, pragmatic and take a risk-based approach to your work.
In-house teams are often under-resourced and there are far more issues than there are lawyers or time in the day to deal with every one of them, at least in the way you would have been able to deal with these matters in private practice.
Karina: Be confident and back yourself – even if new to a corporate counsel role, you will have skills that will be well placed in-house. I’d also strongly advise you think outside the box in all situations – never be afraid to challenge the status quo.
Karina: Working in-house has many challenges and there are some tricky areas for lawyers to navigate (professional privilege is a great example). For those moving in-house, your network will be a useful resource, whether it be friends who work in-house or organisations like the Association of Corporate Counsel.
If you are interested in an in-house move and would like to discuss your career options, feel free to get in touch with Matt.
+61 406 809 995