IN-HOUSE: SWINGING DOORS - THE INCREASING ABILITY TO CHANGE FIELDS*

by: RACHAEL BRECKON

A JOB IN-HOUSE NO LONGER means closing the door to firm life. In fact these days lawyers are finding they can move seamlessly between the two.

“If you put a career plan in place and work out what you want to do then [your career] is up to you,” Duncan Cotterill associate Sarah Gillies says.

Ms Gillies speaks from personal experience. She returned to firm life this year after eight years working as an in-house lawyer for Gen-i and Telecom. She credits this approach to career development training she undertook during her seven years working in-house for Telecom.

When she left Minter Ellison Rudd Watts in 2005 to work for Telecom, during the peak of regulatory changes, Ms Gillies admits she wasn’t certain if it would mean an end to her career as a firm-based lawyer.

“To be honest, I didn’t know much about in-house at the time, but the opportunity at Telecom was such an exciting one that I was interested enough to take it.”

The decision to move back to a firm-based role was predominantly due to her desire to return to advising a range of industries, but she notes it has been interesting to again be the “core business” instead of supporting the core business.

“In-house you are close to the business. In a firm you are the business. There is quite a massive distinction,” Ms Gillies says.

While she says it’s not that people treat you differently when you work in a support function, the focus is different and in each role you develop different skills.

“Certainly my experience of being in-house was you really get to know the business better,” she says.

“You get exposed to the management information and that is a great opportunity. If you are a proactive person you will take that opportunity. It is harder to get [management training] from a firm. If you are driven enough to take [in-house opportunities] they can really take you places.”

In-house she had the opportunity to hone her “soft skills” which, Ms Gillies says, she “wouldn’t have thought of doing if [she] had just stayed in a firm”.

“You learn so much observing other people’s management and leadership styles.”

Asked if a reason for taking an in-house position was because it was a way to work nine to five, Ms Gillies says in her experience in-house lawyers work just as hard as lawyers in firms do.

“Overall, in terms of work-life balance, you can fail at that in-house just as much as you can fail at that in a firm.

“I don’t really know any in-house lawyers that did just work light hours. All the law firms that worked with us saw how we worked. For a company to be at the stage where they need an in-house lawyer, it will mean there is a lot of work.”

Overall, Ms Gillies says that she would thoroughly recommend lawyers take the opportunity to work in-house. “It’s a great way to build your legal skills, develop leadership skills and learn about business, and it can help you understand your clients better, whether you choose to stay in-house or return to private practice.”

Sarah is the director of the 2013 CLANZ Conference, a role she took up while working in-house and one she will continue until the conference on May 16 and 17.

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* Published with kind permission of Law Talk, Law Society of New Zealand.