New Zealand Law Society - In-house: more than a legal eagle

In-house: more than a legal eagle

In-house: more than a legal eagle

What does a flight over the territory of in-house law and lawyers reveal? LawTalk takes a bird’s eye cruise above the unexpected geography of in-house law. Two of the profession’s best share their thoughts. Plus LawTalk gives you the rundown on stats and recruiting in-house lawyers in Aotearoa New Zealand.

An in-house lawyer might be a legal eagle. But he or she tends to soar over broader territory, probing multiple landscapes, oftentimes trailing a team behind.

An in-house lawyer must advise more widely than the average private practice professional, who tends to specialise.

But wait. It’s not all legal territory that the legal eagle flies over. Nor is it all risk management.

The organisation can ask its chief lawyer to make that commercial decision. He or she is there to support business growth.

It can be lonesome, lawyers tell us. But mostly it’s very rewarding.

So what does an in-house legal counsel actually do? What does their day look like? Why have they chosen the in-house life? We go direct and ask for insights from those who know best...

You’ve got to begin somewhere

Passionate, invested, absorbed, satisfied. These are the adjectives that in-house lawyers use to describe their roles.

Deborah Marris, General Counsel for Synlait and leading a team of five, says: “I really enjoy being part of the business, being on the executive team and being involved in business decisions.”

Deborah Marris

After a big career in the banking industry, she has loved her new sector and insights into agriculture and dairy processing that it has brought her.

“It’s been fascinating,” she says, adding that a new directorship has also allowed her ‘to get out on the farm’. “When we have board meetings we walk around the farms when we can. The other directors have a wealth of knowledge in farming and other industries that they are able to share .”

Lynda Frew, is Legal Counsel/Commercial Lead for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and leads the Council’s Commercial Team of four, with the task of improving an entire integrated procurement, and supplier contract management system. She describes her role:

“There’s a huge sense of satisfaction that you’re part of the business, and you’re contributing to the success of the business. It’s very rewarding feeling you’re making a contribution to an organisation that’s doing positive things, making a positive impact.”

Lynda Frew

The two women arrived in these jobs via circuitous paths.

Lynda started her career in private practice and found her feet in-house on an OE in Great Britain, following up with eight years at Scion upon her return to New Zealand.

“I got the job in-house at a UK university which I just loved. While I was there, I started working part-time and flexibly,” she says, noting she was able to have children and keep working. “Once you’ve experienced that kind of role and flexibility... well I suspect private practice hasn’t caught up to what I’d want,” she says. “In-house you can really bring so much more of yourself to the role.”

Deborah Marris was a tax partner at Minter Ellison. Also qualified in accounting, she went to the ANZ as Head of Tax in New Zealand. Itchy feet took her next to Melbourne as General Counsel, Asia, Pacific, Europe and America in ANZ, responsible for 31 countries’ legal operations. Later still, she became a Managing Director with Barclays Bank, India, based in Mumbai.

“I have always loved to travel and living and working offshore is a great way to do that,” she says.

Unexpected competencies

Absolutely all in-house legal counsel leaders talk more in terms of the ‘soft skills’ than the legal skills they deploy. A high level of technical legal skills is a given.

In many ways, softer skills are just as important as legal competency – which, at first glance, seems unexpected.

“Being close to the business means it’s not solely about the law,” says Deborah. “It’s the practicality of running the business. What I’ve learnt is that you have to be very aware of your audience in order to get your point across. I have had to learn to present advice differently from when I was a partner in a law firm. You’ve got to change how you present issues and share information, in order to be effective.”

Communication is a key, as in any job. Legal jargon does not cut the mustard.

Deborah continues: “When I was working in banking I’d say: ‘this is the issue, this is what we have to do’, and it would generally happen. In Synlait, you have to convince people they should be doing something. You have to be influential. If I’m talking to manufacturing staff, there’s no point in talking about legal principles as they are busy and are very focused on manufacturing excellence: I’ve got to talk about how it will affect them on the floor, and how they’ll benefit.”

“One of the things you get with in-house roles, apart from the fact it’s very intellectually stimulating, very rewarding, is that you use a full skillset. That includes legal, but also communication and risk assessment, and understanding commercial environments,” says Lynda. “There’s a big people leadership component to the role.”

“Leaders need to be good role models,” says Deborah. “They need to be very inclusive. As a leader you’re only as good as the people around you. We need to be supporting our people so they are continually developing.”

The door of the general counsel or in-house legal counsel is always open, the two lawyers say. In fact, they spend a lot of time listening and talking. It’s a “water-cooler” operations management style, that they say adds value by prompting issue identification, and thus improved risk management.

“Before Covid-19 I would do walks through the factory,” says Deborah. “So I’m in the manufacturing area at certain times. I can see what’s going on and talk to the manufacturing staff. That’s key to me – being on site, being in head office, talking to people. That’s how I find out what’s going on.”

Lynda, who works from home some of the time, and was in lockdown for part of last year, still says that chats matter.

“I do think a big part of my role is about relationships,” says Lynda. “There are lots of conversations – building that respected relationship with internal clients so they come to you early.”

Another surprise ingredient of the good in-house lawyer is a strong sense of what’s going on outside the four walls of an organisation – scanning news sites and being aware of trends.

Each day as it comes

All in-house lawyers say they never know what’s going to come up, despite controlling and scheduling as much as they can. There is simply no average day because issues always roll in.

“There is generally not a typical day,” says Deborah. “Most general counsel would say that. If I tried to describe it, it would be turning on the computer and looking at what’s coming up, that day, that week – what needs to be done: in three months, six months. Then working on it. Then, there’s always something unexpected that comes up. So a typical day is really about what’s happening now, and what needs to be done. Then, when there’s a gap, planning and working on making improvements.”

“Once you’ve experienced flexibility in a role.....” reflects Lynda, “....well I think there’s a growing number of people who for all sorts of reasons are attracted to working part-time, or flexibly. You want more balance. It’s about coming to work, having a really interesting job that you can devote yourself to, then going off and doing something else.”

Lynda organises her day into meetings (face-to-face where possible) and conversations, shuffling the inevitable paper, but also thinking widely. Her work involves the setting up of a new procurement system where she must build in the consideration of all social, economic and environmental benefits that can be achieved.

“It’s really looking at wider concerns, and seeing how those can be reflected in the contracts with a supplier,” she says.

Deborah says pragmatism is the underscoring feature of any day and growing the business is her major concern. As the team is small, meetings are on an as needed basis and can be arranged quickly.

“The key for me is not to focus on all the risks and issues, but be very positive and supportive of the business and focus on the strategic agenda, while at the same time addressing key legal risks. Being constructive, solution focused, being supportive – is key to being effective in the role.”

Who are the “in-housers”?

Figures taken from the New Zealand Law Society registry* show significant growth of in-house lawyers over the past few years, with a skew towards more women than men.

As at 31 December 2021, there were 4307 in-house lawyers, 62% of whom were women (compared with 54% of all lawyers being women); 38% were men (compared with 46% of all lawyers).

The number of in-house lawyers now represents nearly 28% of the profession. Numbers and the proportion of the total pool of lawyers have grown annually. (In 2016, in-house lawyers represented 23% of the total legal population with New Zealand practising certificates). This is a higher rate of growth than that of the profession as a whole.

Growth of in-house lawyer numbers

The median age is 40 years.

The greatest proportion (22%) of lawyers practising in-house have 6-10 years’ post qualification experience (PQE), and the second largest group (18%) has 11-15 years’ PQE.

In-house lawyer work type

Recruiters have said that, once, most in-house lawyers worked in government or local government organisations – information they gained anecdotally. Now the majority (2276) work in commercial business organisations.

“This growth in the number and proportion of lawyers choosing to work in in-house roles is expected to continue, with many organisations seeing the value of in-house lawyers and choosing to increase legal expertise and capacity within the organisation,” says Grant Pritchard, President of the In-House Lawyers Association of New Zealand.

There is still, however, a pretty even split between Auckland (with 1509 in-house lawyers) and Wellington with 1453 in-house lawyers. Seven hundred and twenty lawyers with practising certificates have identified as overseas lawyers.

Age profile of in-house lawyers in 2021

*The figures represent those lawyers who hold a practising certificate and identify themselves as in-house lawyers.

Recruiters’ Eye-View of In-house Legal

“Thirty years ago,” says Grant Pritchard (in-house lawyer and President of the In-House Lawyers Association of New Zealand ILANZ), “there was a perception of in-house counsel as being second-tier lawyers – as post boxes, shuffling instructions out to external counsel to do the ‘real work’.”

Not any more.

“Gone are the dated stereotypes,” says Grant. “In-house lawyers are at the forefront of legal practice in New Zealand. Our advice and support are helping Kiwi companies and government agencies navigate some of the most complex and challenging issues of our time. And with in-house lawyers making up almost three out of ten lawyers, this is a growing, thriving, and valued part of the profession in New Zealand.”

Grant Pritchard

In-house roles, recruiters say, are in demand. Pay is excellent, and the opportunities for flexibility, promotion and skill development are significant. Travel might even be on the cards (assuming New Zealand can get through the pandemic).

“I think we’ve seen a massive shift,” says Rosamund More, from Robert Walters specialist legal recruiting team. “Businesses are motivated to bring in general counsel and legal counsel much earlier than before. They see the benefit of in-house counsel, reducing spending on law firms. Also, in-house can help set up processes – work with sales or finance. So as the business grows, it means you’re doing everything right.”

Rosamund, herself a qualified lawyer, cut her teeth on legal recruitment in the UK. She came back to New Zealand in 2021, and says the difference between that market and New Zealand is that in-house lawyers there are highly specialised, by industry sector. In New Zealand they’re broader roles. Businesses are seeking generalists.

Lorraine Zencic, from Hays Recruitment (which has run a legal recruitment team since 2005), says most organisations recruiting in-house counsel seek lawyers with three to six years’ post qualification experience ideally from top law firms, who bring excellent experience and a high-grade point average from university.

“You’ll have had exposure to standard commercial transactions such as drafting commercial contracts, sale and purchase agreements, shareholder agreements and be comfortable negotiating supplier agreements for procurement,” she says.

Lorraine Zencic

Lorraine says that some organisations do require industry knowledge for in-house roles.

“For instance, IT companies want people who come from an IT background; property companies look for experience with subdivisions, or leasing,” says Lorraine. But the qualities and skillsets that are needed are still very similar.

So what are the competencies needed to move from a law firm to in-house if you’re a young lawyer?

Technical skills are a given, both recruiters say, especially in contract development and drafting.

Experiencing a secondment from your law firm into the inside of a business can help. Secondments can lend insights into what an in-house environment is like, and they help a would-be in-house counsel to see what they’ll need to succeed.

“One minute in-house, you could be dealing with an employment issue, the next you’re negotiating a contract; half an hour later you’re reviewing the marketing material for intellectual property content,” says Lorraine. “You make a wider contribution to the organisation as a whole and consequently add value.”

The qualities needed are different from those in a law firm.

“An in-house lawyer needs to be someone that’s very approachable, confident, who can converse well with lots of different people within the business. They need the ability to speak legal jargon in a way that people in the business, who aren’t lawyers, will understand. They need to be able to manage risks appropriately,” says Rosamund.

Rosamund More

“The organisation is looking for lawyers who have sound judgment and an understanding of their business,” says Lorraine. “You have to have strong stakeholder engagement. How you communicate at all levels is key. So is understanding issues and producing viable and tangible solutions – lawyers who are business enablers, making commercially savvy decisions.”

Both agree that for the right candidates, flexibility is usually the bonus delivered with the job.

“As lawyers get older, more experienced, they often look for more flexibility. Prior to Covid-19, that was seldom available in law firms,” says Lorraine. “Many businesses particularly public sector, are now doing two days from home, three in the office. They may have glide time. There isn’t as much flexibility in private practice although they are working on it.”

In-house lawyers are at the forefront of legal practice in New Zealand... this is a growing, thriving, valued part of the profession

“Traditionally, in-house has been seen as better ‘work-life balance,’” says Rosamund. “If you’re working for a business, you go home when your client goes home. If your client goes home at 5.30, you can go too. If you’re in private practice, you’re more at the clients’ whim.”

Working in-house can give lawyers the opportunity to work for an organisation whose values chime with theirs. Plus, there’s generally a clear career path available.

Once a lawyer is in-house, statistics show that few turn round and go back into private practice.

“It’s not common,” says Rosamund.

“Seldom happens,” says Lorraine. “Lawyers can find they like being part of the cut and thrust of the commercial world and being part of the final outcome.”

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