In the Spotlight: Launching your legal career in-house

In the Spotlight: Launching your legal career in-house

An increasing number of lawyers are starting their careers in-house instead of in firms and we spoke to three of them about why they chose in-house roles ...

What drew you to in-house legal practice over starting out in a big firm? 

Tim Fletcher started out as a graduate lawyer at Contact Energy in 2011. He says: I never had a clear plan to go in-house, however after interviewing with firms and with in-house teams, I was really impressed with the level of enthusiasm that the in-house counsels I met had for the mission of the companies they worked for. They of course were great lawyers — that was a baseline requirement — but more importantly, they were deeply embedded in the company and understood how their work directly impacted the company achieving its goals. Being a core part of the broader business team, with a focus on skills beyond legal, really excited me and ultimately led me to a career in-house.  
 
Henry Law started out in 2017 as a law clerk and then a graduate lawyer with Z Energy. He says: I was given a job offer at Z Energy Limited while I was still at University. They allowed me to work part-time during University and it worked really flexibly with my lecture cycle. I stayed with the company because Z’s attitude to work-life balance was really progressive. The lawyers in the team allowed me to have a lot of ownership over several smaller areas of the business, and I had my own business units to look after. Bigger firms likely wouldn’t have provided me with that kind of ownership so early. 

Emily Berry started out as a graduate solicitor at Land Information New Zealand 10 months ago.

She says: I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do when I left law school, so I applied for everything I could get my hands on! When I got offered the position at LINZ I did a bit of investigating, and found someone I knew who had worked here (but not as a lawyer), and they said it was a great work environment. I also asked around and got the impression that working in-house often means that you can be exposed to a broad variety of work, and that there are opportunities to take responsibility for files and tasks early on in your role. Working in-house also means that you’re not working only with lawyers, but in collaboration with other teams. 

Has your career developed differently to what you imagined it would be when you were in law school?

Tim: Yes and no. I've worked in 5 jurisdictions and in a number of different industries over the years — I knew my career would touch on a number of diverse areas, but didn't expect to have quite so much variety. I also didn't realise how valuable the skills and ways of thinking I learnt as a lawyer would be in areas outside of the law. When you're at law school (and in firms), all of the people around you have these skills and so you don't realise that they are pretty unique in the workforce and can really help you add value to the organisation you're working for.  

Henry: I imagined I was going to be a criminal lawyer, but I now have wider aspirations to go overseas. Working in-house gave me greater context to other roles outside of legal work and how working in an in-house role could give you a foot in the door to other opportunities. 
 
Emily: I had no idea where I’d end up when I finished law school but given that all of my work experience was in private law firms, I just assumed that I would follow that path. I’m so glad that I branched out and took the opportunity to work in-house in a public sector role as I feel it has given me a totally new set of skills and experiences that I would not have received elsewhere. 

What advice would you have for other grads or younger in-house lawyers?

Tim: Be curious and open to opportunities to work on projects across the organisation you work for — you can add value to all parts of the business and you should jump at chances to be involved in work that stretches you beyond legal work. Learn your business. You'll become truly valuable to your business when you deeply understand how it works and the risks and opportunities they are facing. It'll help you develop creative solutions and provide advice which is actionable and useful. They will definitely thank you for it! 

Henry: No matter what you’re doing, your advice should be as clear and pragmatic as possible. You should tailor the delivery of your advice to the person you are delivering it to. In-house legal work gives you a fantastic opportunity to build this skill because your “clients” are effectively your workmates. This means you’ll have a head start to understand the ways in which they like to be communicated with. 

What do you enjoy about it and are there any unexpected challenges? 

Emily: The work is always topical, and it’s interesting seeing the impact that our decisions have in the media, and the public opinions around them. Working in-house has also given me the opportunity to work with many different teams on a wide range of projects. There’s also a huge sense of community and support within our immediate team and the wider office. Since I started, I’ve felt supported but also encouraged to challenge myself and take on new things. My past work experience has been in smaller private law firms so working in government is new for me. It’s been interesting learning about the authorising environment and keeping up with what is going on in politics.