Becoming an in-house lawyer

  • January 01, 2015
  • Julie Sobowale

Kelly Brown was having a typical legal career. She graduated from the Dalhousie Schulich School of Law in 1996 and began working at Tory’s as an associate in the corporate/commercial practice area. Three years later, Brown began to wonder about a career as in-house counsel. She made the transition to in-house in 2000 when she was hired by Molson Coors Canada. Now she works as Chief Administrative Officer for Molson Coors Canada running their legal, corporate affairs and human resource departments.

“When I was in law school, I didn’t hear about lawyers working in companies,” says Brown. “One of my friends was an in-house lawyer. She described to me what she did every day and said that I would enjoy it too. I started looking around and then got the call to go to Molson. I was seeing friends and colleagues make the change and I was encouraged to make a change in my career.”

Working in a legal department is an attractive option. Lawyers enjoy focusing one client long-term, working outside the confines of private practice and having a better work/life balance. More importantly, lawyers feel they have a greater impact with their clients.

“Some believe it’s easier to be in-house,” says Brown. “It’s not fewer hours but there’s more control over your schedule and more predictability. You work alongside your clients so they’re less likely to place unreasonable expectations. You also get to be a part of a team on a long-term basis. In private practice, the relationship can be relatively short. Plus, the more senior you are, the more of a leadership role you take. I have the ability to flex my leadership muscles. I have the potential to be able to influence decisions. I really enjoy my role.”

It’s a good time to look for an in-house position. According to the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association, 34 per cent of legal departments will increase their staff within the next three years. New issues involving technology, privacy and data create new opportunities for lawyers. Legal career options have also changed within the last 10 years. The stereotypical view that corporate counsel are second tier to private-practice lawyers is no longer true.

“Back in the day people didn’t have a high regard for in-house lawyers,” says Brown. “Companies didn’t use them the way they use them now. There are legal departments that are so big that they work like law firms where lawyers can specialize. There are mid-size departments like mine where you can specialize to a certain degree. We deal with marketing, competition and regulatory matters.”

In-house positions fall into two major categories: the generalist and the specialist. The generalist is a lawyer working in a legal department dealing with multiple issues, usually in a small legal department with one or two lawyers. The specialist is hired for specific files or projects within the organization.

“For GC positions, you need a little bit of experience in various areas, mostly in corporate/commercial and maybe exposure to employment,” says Kimberly MacMillian, Partner at R. Johnson Recruiting, a company focused in the legal sector. “Or we need someone with very specialized skills. For example, we had a construction company looking for someone with specialized real estate experience.”

Gaining experience in key practice areas is essential. Young lawyers looking to go in-house should gain experience in corporate/commercial law, litigation, employment and labour.

“Usually big-firm experience is more attractive but in that environment you get specialized so it has pros and cons,” says MacMillian. “The type and quality of work at a small firm could get you good experience as well.”

When looking at different positions, consider what type of position you’re looking for. Brown recommends exploring corporate culture and whether going in-house is the right choice.

“Learn about yourself and know what you like,” says Brown. “Know what kind of environment you want to work in. In-house can be very different for different companies. It’s very different to work at a bank than a technology company or a consumer packaging company. Look at the type of industry and the corporate culture. What’s the culture like? For example, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have very different cultures and leadership styles.”

You may need to bide your time before being able to make the transition to in-house – it could take a few years’ experience to become an attractive candidate. “You need seven-eight years under your belt,” says MacMillian.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Brown had just four years’ experience when Molson contacted her for a junior position in its legal department. A few lawyers go straight into in-house through articling positions. Others find in-house positions through networking with colleagues who have made the transition.

“I know people who found positions in-house by going to work for a client,” says Brown. “They impressed the client so much that when a position opened up, they hired them. That’s a really good way to do it.”

Overall, an in-house career can be rewarding. Brown believes the choice should be made based on what motivates lawyers in their work.

“I have loved working in-house and I never looked back,” says Brown. “It’s been a really positive experience. I’ve had a very meaningful career.”

Julie Sobowale is a lawyer and journalist based in Halifax.