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Moving to in-house

Most large companies today have at least one in-house legal counsel – a lawyer hired directly by an organisation solely to represent its legal interests.

Rather than hire a private law firm to work on legal matters, most large corporations find it more cost effective to have one or a few legal professionals on staff who are thoroughly familiar with how the company works.

What you need to know

Unlike private practices where lawyers are billed by the hour, working in-house means that you’ll have fixed working hours and a monthly salary. Most lawyers who make the move from private practice to in-house often site better work-life balance as the main incentive.

According to a recent legal salary survey the number of in-house lawyers being hired by local and multinational firms, particularly at the senior level, has increased consistently over the past three years. The survey reports that salaries for in-house counsels increased by about 3 to 5 percent on an annual basis and there was a strong demand for lawyers who speak Mandarin.

While private practice lawyers tend to work in teams with support staff, in-house counsels are often the sole legal practitioners in their organisations, so it would be wise to join professional organisations for support and guidance.

The largest challenge for in-house lawyers is to remain first and foremost a lawyer, giving sound legal advice, but always tempering and adapting that advice to the business environment.

Before you make the leap

Companies who are looking to hire in-house are looking for experienced lawyers who are self-sufficient and who work well alone. While private law firms with senior lawyers and paralegals may provide a training ground for junior lawyers, as an in-house lawyer, you will often need to handle all the documentation and processes on your own, and will be required to provide business advice to your company. Before making the leap, it is best to work for at least five years in a private practice, so you are confident about your skills in your area of specialty and ideally go on a secondment to a client in order to gain first hand experience.

Good business sense is also needed, as you will need to look out for your company’s financial health and growth. Linda Robertson of Advocacy Legal Consultants in Vancouver says that the largest challenge for in-house lawyers “is to remain first and foremost a lawyer, giving sound legal advice, but always tempering and adapting that advice to the business environment.”

Interview preparation

Before you interview, make sure you learn all you can about the company you hope to work for. Get up to speed with the company’s annual report and find out more about their finances and history. Let the interviewer know that you are eager to know more about how the various departments work, and will be happy to sit in with managers and learn more about the business. It is also important to find out if you are allowed to hire external lawyers for specialised support, as this may be required in certain circumstances. Find out about the scope of your work, as well as the corporate and compensation structure, as this will help you decide if the company and the role is right for you. As an in-house legal counsel, the company will be your only client, so it is essential that you like what it does, how it works and what it stands for.

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