This year I mark 15 years as an in-house lawyer. So, as I write this, I have been musing on how I got here and what has changed along the way. I never envisaged in-house as an option for my legal career when I was studying law at Canterbury University in the 1990s. In the past law schools seldom exposed aspiring members of the profession to this type of practice despite the significant number of lawyers employed in such in-house roles. Rather, the unconscious focus at varsity was on private practice in a law firm, with the ultimate indicator of success being partnership.
Although that has changed to some degree (no pun intended) we still engage with law students at careers days who don’t know that this career option exists – and yet almost one in four lawyers practising in New Zealand is an in-house lawyer.
Why is in-house such an attractive proposition?
I can only reflect on my own experience as National Legal Counsel for the Police Prosecution Service (PPS). I am truly fortunate to have the luxury of practising criminal law without the rigours of a timesheet to record my billable hours. I have a supportive employer interested in my professional development. I can (and do) appear in all courts around the country for my employer as prosecutor and legal counsel. I also have a governance responsibility for national oversight of the PPS network.
I am regularly afforded the opportunity to teach advocacy courses at the Royal New Zealand Police College and on a number of occasions over the last seven years have been deployed to teach advocacy skills to prosecutors in Samoa, Cook Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. I never envisaged this breadth was possible when I started out, or that I was choosing a legal pathway that would become such an integral part of the profession.
Some advantages for the in-house lawyer
- The ability to practise an area of law without running the business.
- The ability to practise an area of law and contribute to the running or governance the business.
- Opportunity to see the impact of your advice on core business.
- Opportunity to add strategic value to core business.
- A diet of rich and varied of work.
- The ability to specialise in one area of law.
You will find in-house lawyers working in tech start-ups, government departments, NGOs, major corporates such as Air New Zealand and Fonterra, utilities companies, research institutes and many more industries. In-house is defined by the variety of settings rather than a practice type with in-house lawyers covering areas of law as diverse as criminal, intellectual property, family, commercial and property law.
The breadth of work for in-house counsel can see lawyers, in the course of a working day, sit on boards in governance roles, appear in a criminal court (as either prosecutor or defence counsel), or get multi-million dollar deals across the line. In-house lawyers work in both private and public practice providing regulated services to their employer as a trusted legal adviser. The list is endless and like all lawyers, an in-house lawyer’s practice is full of challenges in dynamic workplaces. Ethics, of course, concern all lawyers but for in-house there is the challenge of balancing the responsibilities to your employer and duties to the court to contend with.
It is not just in my personal experience that there has been significant growth and change. The in-house community as a whole has grown and adapted from the days when in-house was seen as the “soft option” before moving to a dynamic and influential part of the profession and a career path of choice much earlier in careers. It is now not uncommon to hear of lawyers moving from private to in-house and vice versa maybe more than once in their career.
In the last five years there has been a 30% increase in New Zealand-based in-house lawyers compared with an increase of 15% in all New Zealand-based lawyers. And 62% of in-house lawyers are women.
As a member of the In-house Lawyers’ Association of New Zealand (ILANZ) committee, I have also seen the increased connectivity and maturing of this community of interest.
Like many legal interest groups, ILANZ had its beginnings in a small passionate group of volunteers who sought recognition for an evolving but little recognised area of practice. Since the first gathering at ‘conferences’ at the Chateau Tongariro Hotel in the 1980s and the subsequent formation of CLANZ (Corporate Lawyers Association of New Zealand) to ILANZ becoming an established section of the New Zealand Law Society, the common theme throughout this development has been the need for collegiality and professional support for this part of the legal community.
And what’s next?
From those beginnings of wanting to be recognised as worthy of a seat at the table, in-house lawyers have become a substantial force in the legal profession. ILANZ sees opportunities for in-house lawyers to play key roles in influencing and driving change across the profession.
We are also turning our minds to the development needs of the in-house community now and in the future with member feedback leading to new initiatives for skills programmes focused on the three stages of the in-house career – gaining an in-house mindset, pivoting mid-career, and stepping up to a General Counsel role and beyond to general management roles.
The definition of who is an in-house lawyer is no longer as clear cut as it once was and from a representative view we are engaging with our regulatory colleagues with regard to what that might mean for the future.
In May 2020 we look forward to hosting international colleagues from In-house Counsel Worldwide (ICW), a global network of in-house counsel, at our conference in Wellington. We know from our regular discussions with ICW colleagues that we have more in common than we have differences.
I encourage all members of the profession to consider making in-house work part of your career and professional development experience at some point of practice. The opportunities are rich and rewarding.
As Dr Seuss so wisely said: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Don’t forget that the in-house direction is there and it is a great direction to go in.
Mark Wilton firstname.lastname@example.org is the ILANZ Vice President. He is also the convenor of the New Zealand Law Society’s Courthouse Committee and a past Law Society Vice-President and Board member. In addition he has served as President of the Wellington branch of the Law Society and is a current faculty member of the NZLS CLE Ltd Litigation Skills programme.