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Webinar report: A Career as an In-House Lawyer

Our 2023 programme of Legal Leaders webinars in collaboration with Thomson Reuters is underway.

The first of this year’s four events took place in February with a close look into what to expect when you switch from private practice to an in-house role.

Joining Anthony Inglese (chair) and Paul Bentall (Q&A) for this event were two guest presenters with a wealth of experience on both sides of the divide.

Linda Dann, CBE is National Security Law Director at Microsoft UK. Before joining Microsoft, Linda spent several years as a senior civil servant in government legal departments. Her roles saw her working on the Stephen Lawrence case, Foreign Office immigration, asylum and human rights issues, the UK’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Brexit. Linda began her career as a commercial litigator in a London private practice.

‘Prioritising my job interest over career advancement led to opportunities I’d never imagined’
Linda Dann, CBE

Elizabeth Messud, Group General Counsel at Kingfisher also began her career in private practice having studied law in Canada, her home country. With a degree in Russian language and literature, Elizabeth joined Clifford Chance in Moscow in 1994 and subsequently Nestle. After 15 years in the Russian capital, Elizabeth held roles in Barcelona, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Paris and Lausanne before taking up her current role at Kingfisher in the UK. 

‘If the job feels good and you’re contributing - they’re the things that make a career’
Elizabeth Messud

Private practice versus in-house

Both presenters drew big contrasts between the private practice and in-house roles. For Linda, working in government meant working closely with policy colleagues and Ministers but with frequent changes at the top as part of the political ebb and flow, you have to be comfortable with change. Enhanced accountability is a given with intense scrutiny by the media, the courts, parliament and bodies such as the National Audit Office always present. Linda shared how greater stability at the top of an organisation like Microsoft means greater certainty about long term strategy.  At the same time, differences across global laws and legal systems present different challenges.

Elizabeth spoke about how the in-house role with Nestle had enabled her to operate within a single business model while applying it in multiple jurisdictions and varied legal realities, with consequent learnings about differences in law and legal cultures. The pace of her in-house roles has also lent itself far better to the demands of raising a family than the higher-pressured environment of a private practice. That said, Elizabeth recommends getting five to eight years’ experience in private practice before taking an in-house role.

Both presenters agreed that receiving mentorship, either formally or informally, is a massive help during one’s career. In the civil service, mentoring is encouraged and it is also expected that you will regularly move posts.  As an in-house lawyer in a company, you may have less opportunity to develop wider experience. If so, if you have access to external law firms, ask them for help. They’re usually more than happy to provide training and materials to help you develop wider experience.

Skills and behaviours that’ll help your transition

Referring back to her advice to get a solid private practice grounding, Elizabeth says that you’ll appreciate the experience and skills you gain there when you’re no longer surrounded by lawyers in your new workplace. You’ll enjoy (and need) the confidence these hard skills from private practice give you for taking the lead in tasks such as drafting contracts, advising and leading colleagues and negotiating with internal clients.

Also important for Linda was the ability to evolve as a problem solver and find answers that don’t appear in any text book. Typical examples of good behaviours for new in-house lawyers include leveraging the expertise of colleagues anywhere in the organisation and showing your ability to collaborate and develop your leadership skills. This can be particularly challenging if you’ve previously seen yourself more as a subject matter expert than a leader or manager of teams or departments.

Although they both felt that moving in-house was a risk at the time, both Linda and Elizabeth felt that it had been the right decision. 
Similarly, they agree that planning your career as a lawyer in detail and following a highly prescribed path could see you miss out on great opportunities. Law provides an amazing breadth of career choices- and they evolve all the time. Be open to opportunities and follow those that best align with your personal values.

If you work in a small in-house legal team, your role is likely to be quite general as opposed to specific to any legal specialism. Outside law firms are often open to the idea of shadowing and secondments to provide essential support and fill knowledge gaps.

And as Elizabeth points out, what may look like tough challenges could become amazing opportunities to develop your career. Again, being a problem-solver and general coordinator of solutions could prove just as valuable to you as your legal experience. 

To give you some breathing space, it may help to produce Q&A sheets for the most common queries colleagues bring to the legal team. You’ll also need to be able to prioritise tasks, both in your team and across the wider organisation.

A full recording of this session can be found here.

Next up in our Legal Leaders webinar series in collaboration with Thomson Reuters:
Building and running an in-house legal team 

In this session, we’ll look at what it really takes to build and lead an effective in-house legal team. How do you go about it, how do you maintain it and how do you improve and develop it?

It’s on Wednesday 17 May at 2.00pm. Register your interest here.

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