Planning your law career path in in-house and corporate

Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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Overview

An in-house lawyer is employed by a corporation. Unlike lawyers in commercial firms, who work for a variety of clients, in-house lawyers are responsible only for the legal requirements of, and can only provide legal advice to, their direct employer. In-house lawyers currently make up about 25% of all legal practitioners in Australia.

Entering the in-house and corporate legal segment

In-house legal departments can be found within a range of organisations, from mining companies, banks and hotel chains through to global ASX listed companies. Typically, very few opportunities exist for new graduates to start their careers as an in-house corporate counsel – these positions are generally filled through lateral hires from law firms or government agencies. However, some corporations will hire students as law clerks to work throughout the university year or over the summer. Many in-house teams that are willing to employ graduates often send these graduates to do a secondment within one of the legal firms they use for their outsourced work.

The value of prior experience can’t be overstated – employers look very favourably on graduates who have sought out internships or other forms of practical exposure to the business world. The ability to demonstrate an understanding of generic business concepts and challenges will prove beneficial.

What’s involved?

Working as an in-house lawyer, you’ll have to supplement your understanding of the law with a deep knowledge of the organisation that employs you, including its business goals, liabilities, obligations (be they to regulators or shareholders), and assets. In-house lawyers often assist with handlings transactions, acquiring new assets (especially property), dealing with regulators, and reducing their employer’s legal exposure when launching new products or services. One of the satisfactions of working in-house is that you’ll be able to witness the implementation of any solutions you propose while developing a strong understanding of one client instead of several.

The skillset required by in-house lawyers is very different to that required by their counterparts in private practice. Where private practice lawyers are expected to advise and represent multiple clients, in-house lawyers are only responsible for one. They therefore need to take on a more rounded role as a member of the business. This can mean taking responsibility for tasks such as project management, branding, and business development.

Best and worst

An oft-cited benefit of working in-house is that you generally enjoy more regular working hours than lawyers in private practice. Of course, you may nonetheless find yourself working unusual hours if, say, you are dealing with international stakeholders and must accommodate various time zones.

In-house work also exposes you to a broader range of commercial matters. As the title of general counsel implies, you will be expected to become an accomplished generalist capable of addressing all of your employer’s legal requirements with equal competency.

Many in-house teams do not require their lawyers to time-bill. This is because they only have one client – their employer. For this reason, in-house legal teams are often seen as ‘cost centres’ that don’t generate revenue. They must therefore find innovative ways to demonstrate the value they bring to their organisation. This may be through reducing exposure to regulatory penalties, implementing risk management procedures to avoid reputational damage, and drafting commercial contracts in a way that benefits their employer.

Your non-legal colleagues will often come to you with questions of law and expect that you know the answer immediately. At other times, you might feel the need to remind your colleagues of the legal risks associated with a particular matter, or to raise concerns about proceeding in a particular way. This will mean learning how to share legal information in a language and format that non-lawyers can quickly and accurately comprehend.

Working in a small in-house team can be quite isolating for a lawyer. Often lawyers draw support from their legal counterparts and colleagues. It is important that you find ways to engage with your legal peers by joining committees, industry associations and attending networking events and conferences.

Career progression

In-house legal departments tend to be less hierarchical than private firms, which means that your opportunities for career advancement may not be as immediately obvious. You will generally start as a legal counsel or in-house lawyer. This can lead to work as a Senior Legal Counsel (or similar) or General Counsel (Chief Legal Officer). Larger organisations often have a Group General Counsel who is responsible for overseeing all legal processes within their organisation.

Some of the other ways in which you might advance your career include: being promoted to a legal leadership role, becoming a specialist advisor attached to a specific business department, or pursuing commercial promotions (outside of the legal department).

According to the 2016 Hudson Salary Guide, in-house lawyers in Australia earn, on average, $70,000–85,000 per annum at the beginning of their career and more than $128,000 per annum after six years of service.

Employer examples:

  • banks and financial institutions
  • insurance companies
  • multinational organisations
  • accounting firms
  • consultancy firms
  • telecommunications companies
  • retail and supermarket chains
  • manufacturing companies
  • recruitment agencies
  • technology and software companies
  • investment companies.

Job title examples:

  • corporate counsel
  • contracts administrator
  • document review officer
  • legal governance officer
  • risk management professional
  • compliance officer
  • legal recruiter
  • legal analyst
  • commercial advisor
  • ethics manager.

Choose this if:

  • You enjoy business and corporate law.
  • You’re prepared to work unpredictable hours and take on large amounts of responsibility.
  • You’ve completed an internship or clerkship and decided, based on your experience, that you’ll find corporate law stimulating and fulfilling.