The in-house lawyer career path – opportunities and challenges

Brett Walker
Brett Walker, Lecturer, ANU Legal Workshop and former General Counsel at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Over the last 20 years there has been a significant increase in the number of solicitors employed by corporations and in government. The most recent Law Society National Profile Report (April 2015) found that 15.8% of practising lawyers in Australia worked for corporations and 9.6% worked in government. More relevantly, while between 2011 and 2014 the number of practising lawyers in Australia increased by 12%, the number of corporate lawyers increased by 22% and the number of government lawyers increased by 19%.

The growth in corporate and government employment for solicitors has been driven by a range of factors including the desire of corporations and governments to reduce costs and ensure easier access to legal advice by lawyers who know their business in an increasingly complex and regulated world.

But is the life of a corporate or government lawyer the life for you?

Opportunities and Challenges

Opportunities

  1. Alignment of Expertise and Passion - by working in-house you have the opportunity to work for an organisation which operates in an area of society, government or business that interests you, which aligns with your personal values and/ or in which you have additional (non-legal) expertise. For example, many law students have additional qualifications in economics, science, political science, public administration or marketing. A career in-house can provide opportunities for you to blend that additional expertise with your legal skills to make you a more effective lawyer.
  2. Multidisciplinary Teams - you will almost certainly work as part of a multidisciplinary team. While working with lawyers day in day out is fun, working side by side with engineers, scientists, public policy specialists, banking executives, Departmental Secretaries and others is (in my opinion) much more fun. You soon come to realise that the legal perspective on things is merely one perspective.
  3. Broader Career Opportunities - you may have the opportunity to move into a non-legal role. Many lawyers have successfully moved from legal roles into senior roles in business, public administration or with NGOs. Some prominent examples are our PM, Malcolm Turnbull and Ian Narev, CEO of the Commonwealth Bank. Lawyers understand the “rules of the game” and are trained to analyse risk and solve problems – that makes them ideal business people provided they can adjust from being an adviser to being a decision-maker.

Challenges

  1. Demonstrating your value – private firm lawyers demonstrate their value by providing quality service and good outcomes for their clients that reflects (hopefully) in fees earned, personal satisfaction and new clients. The in-house counsel on the other hand only has only 1 client and is a cost centre (corporate jargon for a business overhead). You therefore need to learn how to measure and communicate your value to your organisation’s executive in different ways.
  2. Maintaining your independence and objectivity – being an in-house lawyer requires you to be both a facilitator and a guardian. No organisation likes a lawyer who says “no” to everything but a lawyer who too easily overlooks legal risks in order to maintain business relationships is even worse (think Enron). You therefore spend a lot of time thinking about how to communicate your advice to the client in a pragmatic and practical way which is consistent with the strategic objectives of the organisation as opposed to simply researching and writing it.
  3. Doing more with less or much more with the same – because the legal team is a cost centre (see Challenge No.1 above) there are constant pressures to undertake more work with less resources or to take on more work without additional resources. Rather than complaining about this you need to constantly be looking for ways to operate more efficiently. For example, by examining whether you are spending your time on the right matters. What are the “right matters” will involve an assessment of relative value and risk in the context of the organisation’s strategic objectives.

Interested in exploring these issues in greater detail?

These issues and more will be explored in the MLP Completion Course, In-House Corporate and Government Legal Practice Course which commences in March 2017.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP