New Zealand Law Society - Private practice to in-house and back — some insights

Private practice to in-house and back — some insights

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In March of this year I was asked if I would consider working in-house for a client of my firm. The agreed period was for six months. I would be working inside an organisation that the firm worked closely with on a range of matters.

It was a daunting prospect, not least because I had little concept of what the role would involve. It was my luck that the role was newly created and that there were two of us selected (albeit from different firms) to step into the breach.

This article shares some of the key things I learned while in-house. It was a rare opportunity to see the provision of legal services from inside a client and to learn how people rely on legal advice and support to do their jobs effectively.

Get to know people

This may seem very obvious but it is something that many lawyers struggle with. The pressure of the billable unit often seems to override the need to just have a chat with the people you are dealing with.

The in-house role means that there is a need for personal promotion or PR. The more people that know who you are and what you do, the more likely they are to seek your help.

There is a perception that “going to legal” means getting entangled in red tape, legal jargon and complex issues. If people know you, they will be more likely to seek your advice on the little things – which as we all know can rapidly turn into something much larger.

Talk more, email less

Email is a fantastic tool but it also can become an easy way to avoid direct contact. Moving in-house means that most people you might need to deal with are within walking distance. Use that to your advantage.

Emails often leave out information, whereas a 15-minute discussion will pay dividends. Not to mention it helps with getting to know people. If you have the time, people really appreciate the fact that a legal staff member took the time to come and chat about their issue.

Billing anxiety

Unshackling yourself from the billable unit can be daunting at first. Learning to think in terms of how long a problem will take to resolve, rather than how much it will cost, is quickly picked up.

It also means that the associated administration time is not lost by drafting billing letters, reviewing timesheets or enduring potential write-offs. It also means that you can be more comfortable in working out a problem and seeking out the information you think is needed.

Learning to think quickly

This is something that is really terrifying. People will often present themselves and ask tough questions of you – the sort of questions that might be discussed with colleagues before an answer is given. Except you don’t have any legal colleagues in the next office or cubicle necessarily.

Bear in mind that you can use the legal services that you used to provide, phone a friend and discuss it. Obviously this would need to be within the parameters of the work arrangements between your organisation and the law firm but most firms engaged by corporates have such processes in place.

Use them and avoid second guessing yourself or a potential error.

Try and avoid being too much of a ‘lawyer’

This is not advocating abandonment of legal skills but rather suggesting a less litigious approach (to those with a litigious background).

While it can be tempting to cross-examine someone about a mistake it is best avoided when it is not needed.

First, it can lead to you looking like the company “police”. Second, it can lead to people not telling you things that you should know about. This is not to say don’t do your job, investigate issues and find out the details and who was responsible – just advocating a softer approach. It can provide more information and ensure the issue is properly dealt with. It also means you don’t end up being seen as a burden.

The opportunities afforded by a temporary in-house experience are huge. The chance should be grabbed if offered. The above reflects some of the things I learned during my recent experience. I am extremely grateful for the insights I gained and for the chance to meet some of the clients face-to-face. I would thoroughly recommend it to any lawyer in private practice.

Adam de Hamel is an associate at Fortune Manning in Auckland.

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