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Developing your in-house career

‘In-house can be a springboard toward a world of exciting opportunity’

There are some big differences between being a lawyer at a private practice and working in an in-house role. 

We explored the topic in depth in the third webinar of our 2021 series in association with Thomson Reuters. 

Regular moderators Anthony Inglese and Paul Bentall were joined by two senior lawyers who have made the transition from private practice to in-house.

As General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer at Kyowa Kirin International, Roswitha Reisinger heads up legal, compliance and enterprise risk management at the Japanese pharmaceutical and biotechnology business Kyowa Kirin. Roswitha holds a PhD in law from the University of Vienna, a Master of Law from the University of Bristol and is an Executive Alumna of the Harvard Business School.

Jake White is Head of Legal at WWF-UK where he also heads up the Advocacy and Campaigns function. Describing himself as passionate about climate change, nature, justice and standing up for the little guy, Jake has also held senior legal roles at Friends of the Earth and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. He’s a trustee of Somerset Wildlands and a former volunteer at the Waterloo Legal Advice Service.

Roswitha and Jake discussed their experiences and fielded questions from the (virtual) floor. Here are some of them. 

What sort of organisation should I work for?

Make a checklist of your most important values and career goals and reference potential employers against it. This will help you narrow down your options and ensure you find the best fit for you. 

What should I prioritise in my first few months?

Knowledge. Listen, listen and listen some more. And do an awful lot of reading. There’s no substitute for learning all there is to know about your new employer – its industry sector, its goals, its challenges and its culture. Then, you’ll need to understand exactly what your colleagues expect from you. As lawyers, we’re trained to pick things up and master them quickly. Make full use of this skill in your settling-in period.

Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist in an in-house role?

A generalist. A top-level view across the whole organisation trumps a narrow yet deep involvement in specific area every time. This does mean you’ll need to get accustomed to not knowing everything about everything. However, in our panellists’ experience, knowing which questions to ask is more important than knowing the answers.

Is it possible to be a leader even if I’m not in a senior role?

Yes, by carving out a niche for yourself. While taking care to remain a generalist, you can also evolve into an expert in a given field. This can help you build your personal brand, give your legal department extra visibility and allow you to build your wider network. You’ll find this especially useful if your department is a small fish in a big pond. Make a point too, of putting yourself forward for leadership roles in relevant projects.

You could also look into a leadership qualification. As well as giving you great insights into how organisations function, this will help you manage change and develop strategy.

Is training in-house as good as at private practices?

Generally not. It’s a big ask in most business because there are all sorts of supervision responsibilities that come with managing a training contract expansive enough for in-house lawyers. Plus, there are many areas of law that you may never get involved with in-house. For example, in a third sector organisation, you’re unlikely to need deep knowledge of M&A law. 

The same is also true when it comes to knowledge management practices and infrastructure. Law firms are way ahead in these areas simply because it’s their core business. In a construction company or a manufacturing business, say, these are things you’ll need to justify a budget for.

Should I find a mentor?

Mentoring can be incredibly helpful if you’re switching from private practice to in-house. And you may wish to consider both informal and formal mentoring. Formal mentoring is structured but it can get wired into the bureaucratic and HR fabric of the organisation, which in turn can squeeze the life out of it. The informal type allows you to learn from the ‘occasional indiscretion’ but it can be hit and miss and difficult to systematise. 

At the Centre for Legal Leadership we’d be delighted to give you some advice about mentoring.

Can in-house lawyers play a role in ‘building back better’?

Most definitely. You can involve yourself in shaping an environment that works best for everyone at your organisation. Employment law will, of course, come into this, however, you can contribute far beyond your legal input. You know as well as anyone else what a good working environment looks and feels like. 

What opportunities are there beyond law?

Many in-house lawyers move into roles that encompass ethics, compliance, enterprise risk management and even sustainability. Others go on to build successful careers in business and policymaking. There’s no doubt that working as an in-house lawyer can be an excellent springboard to a world of exciting opportunity.

Next event: 8 September. The topic for our fourth webinar in this series is Building your resilience, reputation and personal networks. Contact us to register your interest.

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