New Zealand Law Society - Pondering career paths after the experience of lockdown

Pondering career paths after the experience of lockdown

By Andrew de Boyett and Jill Pitches

Many lawyers may be reflecting on their experience of the lockdown and what it has been like to work remotely, pondering the future, and thinking about their work situation and where they are going with their careers. Part of that thinking may be around what is most important in terms of having the career and the work-life balance they want. With that in mind, in this article we talk to lawyers about their experiences of working in multi-lawyer private practice law firms, working as in-house lawyers, and explore a career path that is growing in popularity – flexible in-house lawyers.

Working in a multi-lawyer private practice law firm

According to the Law Society’s most recent Snapshot of the Legal Profession, 58% of all lawyers work in multi-lawyer law firms (LawTalk 926, March 2019). Firm sizes vary dramatically, with 15 firms employing one quarter of all lawyers who work in multi-lawyer firms, but most other firms are much smaller with an average of 6.4 lawyers per firm.

Multi-lawyer law firms are great places to receive training, work with teams of lawyers, gain exposure to a wide range of issues and clients, focus on specialist areas of the law, and develop skills and experience to become a leading lawyer in an area of practice.

Millie McCulloch, a Dunedin-based lawyer, worked at a small New Zealand law firm and a mid-size Australian law firm earlier in her career. “Working in a firm is a really great training ground to get you set up with the fundamentals of being a lawyer and advising clients. Being able to service a range of clients at one time ensures that you see a wide range of issues, and you become proficient in providing wide ranging advice,” she says.

Louise Unger, an Auckland-based lawyer who is now working for LOD, worked at several large New Zealand law firms earlier in her career, and notes, “I loved the environment and my work and learnt a heap about being a good lawyer.”

The pace of work, the culture, and the organisational structure at many law firms is not for everyone. Some lawyers find that a focus on billable hours (often involving working long hours), the need to build a client base and retain them, always being on the outside/only advising on specific aspects of clients’ business, and the hierarchical nature of many law firms (including a feeling that they are competing with others to progress) doesn’t work for them.

Samantha Naidoo, a Wellington-based lawyer, worked at several small New Zealand law firms earlier in her career. “The focus was very much the billable hours and being in the office, which was not particularly responsive to a working mum like me,” she says.

Sheree Jaggard, an Auckland-based lawyer, worked at a large New Zealand law firm earlier in her career, and notes, “I was dipping in and out of things and never saw what happened for clients the whole way through. It’s rare for a client to update you as to how it all went after your involvement ends”.

Working in-house

According to the Snapshot of the Legal Profession, in-house lawyers now make up 23.5% of the New Zealand legal profession. In the last five years, there has been a 30% increase in in-house lawyers, compared with an increase of 15% in all New Zealand lawyers. Central government employs just over half (with district health boards included in this), followed by the corporate sector. There are several exceptions, but generally New Zealand’s in-house lawyers work in small teams – an average of 3.3 in-house lawyers per location.

Many lawyers choose to work in in-house teams in order to be closer to business decision-making, and to be part of a more commercial operating structure in general. Millie McCulloch moved from private practice and has worked in-house for several public and private sector organisations. “In-house legal work was very well suited to me as I really enjoyed getting to know the in-depth workings of the businesses I worked for. The level of advice that you can provide as a lawyer in-house is very different to that of a private practice lawyer from the outside looking in. It is great to be embedded in the business and see the day to day impact your advice has on the way a business operates,” she says.

After moving from private practice Louise Unger worked in-house for a large financial institution. She notes, “I felt I had more freedom to be useful and help the organisation achieve their goals compared to the work I did in private practice. I could advise from the perspective of my knowledge of the company and with a commercial lens rather than just on the narrow legal aspects of a project.”

Jason Mitchell, an Auckland-based lawyer who is now working for LOD, worked in-house for a large financial institution earlier in his career. “When you’re in-house, you develop strong relationships with stakeholders across the business. You have to speak their language and work with them to help them achieve their goals rather than telling them what they can (or can’t) do,” he says.

As in-house legal is usually a cost centre there isn’t a focus on getting work in and billable hours, and there is often more flexibility with working hours than in private practice firms. Samantha Naidoo moved from private practice and has worked in-house for several public and private sector organisations. “I was able to go in-house part time to manage the children while they were young,” she says. Louise Unger notes, “Being in-house gave me more flexibility to how my working life worked with my personal life. Although there was often pressure in my in-house role, I found it easier to manage expectations and balance workloads than was often the case in private practice. You don’t have to worry about where the next job is coming from and I found that legal teams are more willing to share work and ideas than I experienced at times in private practice.”

While in-house has a lot of advantages for lawyers, the nature of the work can depend on how legal is regarded throughout the organisation. As a cost centre there can be resourcing challenges, and there can be limitations on career progression. Says Samantha Naidoo, “In some organisations in-house lawyers are seen and treated purely as service providers rather than as colleagues that are part of the organisation looking to achieve the same goals – the focus is more on how quickly you can turn work around rather than other measures of contribution or success. In well-resourced teams you can achieve lots, but if you are not well resourced it can be a difficult environment.” Jason Mitchell says it can be more challenging to progress your career. “You’re a cost centre in a business and they’re not just going to create a senior role for you because you’ve done a great job. I saw this play on the minds of some of my colleagues,” he notes.

Working as a flexible in-house lawyer

The Snapshot of the Legal Profession does not report on the number of flexible in-house lawyers in the New Zealand legal profession. We believe the numbers are spread across the law firm, in-house and unknown categories. If we take into account the number of flexible lawyers in the LOD network, the lawyers who are in the networks of other alternative legal providers and recruitment agencies, and lawyers working on their own account, we think that flexible in-house lawyers make up around 3% of the New Zealand legal profession (ie, around 400 lawyers).

In recent years an increasing number of in-house lawyers have wanted to control their own workload, working environment and work-life balance. Cloud-based software, videoconferencing and other technologies have allowed lawyers to work remotely and plug into in-house legal departments as if they were working in the office despite being actually located elsewhere. At the same time, more organisations have wanted other options to support and complement their in-house teams and external law firms. Thus a new career path has emerged for experienced in-house lawyers – flexible contracting. These lawyers can work on their own account, be employed by recruitment agencies, or they can be employed by alternative legal services providers such as LOD.

Flexible practice allows in-house lawyers to work the hours they want, from where they want, and when they want. They can work physically in an organisation’s offices or they can work remotely. It provides a route for those looking to pause, evaluate, and assess where they’re at in their careers, and determine what comes next while still earning income and sharpening their skills. It also provides a route for those who have reached the end of a stage in their careers but still want to stay immersed in the practice of law.

Julie Chuor, a Wellington-based lawyer, previously worked in-house for several public and private sector organisations, and is now working as a LOD flexible lawyer for a Government department. She sums up what being a flexible in-house lawyer is like: “You feel like you have more of a life!”

Samantha Naidoo, Sheree Jaggard and Millie McCulloch are also now working as LOD flexible lawyers – Samantha is working for a Government department, and Sheree and Millie are working for well-known New Zealand businesses. “I can plan my work around my life, rather than the other way around. I currently choose to work a four day week but if the client needs me I will do five days,” Samantha Naidoo says. Millie McCulloch adds, “Flexible practice fits perfectly with my family situation and allows me to live regionally, working remotely doing the type of legal work I love with large New Zealand businesses – work that I would not have been able to secure in a traditional role locally.”

Working flexibly does not mean that the work is less challenging or interesting. Samantha Naidoo notes, “Flexible contracting is an opportunity to diversify and broaden my experience working with different kinds of organisations, and to use my transferable skills.” Sheree Jaggard adds, “Something I have enjoyed the most with flexible working is that I’m not tied to a particular industry. New industries keep you evolving, learning and on your toes.”

Millie McCulloch agrees: “It provides the opportunity to work for a variety of clients (like private practice), while still being embedded in the business and understanding your clients’ needs deeply (like traditional in-house practice).”

Flexible in-house lawyers face the same issues as many other contract workers – uncertainty and potential gaps between assignments, and there are some organisations/people who struggle with the idea of part-time and remote workers.

Notes Millie McCulloch: “There is an element of uncertainty that sits in the background. Once a role ends, there is not necessarily a guarantee that you will immediately be picked up by another client. But some people may also consider this a benefit as it allows for a few extra holidays over the course of the year!”

“There may be a perception that part-time workers who are not seen at their desks every day are perceived as being not as available and not working as hard. However, I think that perception is falling away as flexible and remote working arrangements become more common,” Julie Chuor adds. With flexible and remote working arrangements being the norm during lockdown, that perception has in all probability been removed.

Choosing the right career path

At the beginning of this article we said that part of the thinking about lawyers’ work situations and where they are going with their careers may be around what is most important in terms of having the career and the work-life balance they want.

Samantha Naidoo has worked in multi-lawyer private practice law firms, as an in-house lawyer, and as flexible in-house lawyer. She advises, “Do not be too fixed as to what your idea of a legal career is. There is more than one way. There are a range of options and you sometimes have to think outside the box and work out what’s best for you. Be brave and don’t think you have to stick to a particular path just because it might suit someone else. Try different options, especially if where you are at is not that fulfilling. There is nothing to lose in trying something different to see if it is a more rewarding career path.”

With Samantha’s advice in mind we leave readers with a very appropriate Māori whakatauākī – Ko ia kāhore nei i rapu, tē kitea (one who does not seek, will not find).

Andrew de Boyett is Director – Client Solutions and Jill Pitches is Head of People & Development at LOD, an alternative legal services provider. LOD provides flexible in-house lawyers and risk & compliance specialists, has offices around the world, and is focused on thinking differently and working smarter.

Millie McCulloch

Louise Unger

Samantha Naidoo

Sheree Jaggard

Jason Mitchell

Julie Chuor

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