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We are not second class lawyers

Law is an innately hierarchal practice, one steeped in tradition and competition. Rockstar barristers take the crown, followed by less prestigious solicitors, with hungry young associates ranked below them. In the past, this culture of competition has stained the relationship between in-house counsel and private practice lawyers, because rather than appreciating that both parties existed in a symbiotic relationship - relying on each other for various aspects of their work - often private practice regarded in-house as mediocre, not able to cut it in the real legal world.

"Your legal career is over. Once you go in-house, you can't go back into private practice." These were the exact words said to Shaun Plant, LawVu's Chief Legal Officer, when he made the move in-house from private practice. Such a dismissive remark reinforced the fact that despite the rise in numbers of in-house lawyers and the increasing awareness of their value, the old-school attitude that they were second-class lawyers prevailed.

The root of private practice lawyers' superiority complex was likely based on the idea that in-house farmed out all their demanding work to external counsel, dealing with the routine and low complex work themselves. This meant private practice regarded themselves as true legal heavyweights and in-house as less competent lawyers, unable to hack it in private practice.

"While it is correct to say some specialist work is outsourced, there are many other reasons that influence a decision to use external counsel,” says Plant. “Capacity is a huge factor. Sometimes in-house teams get pushed beyond a limit they can resource internally without burning out their people.”

Independence is another biggie. Companies sometimes make decisions that need supporting advice from an independent source external to the business, not because they don't trust the advice of their in-house team.

Thankfully, the perception of in-house lawyers is changing, which is resulting in more lawyers making the move in-house. In fact, recent reports show the in-house profession is growing steadily and at a faster rate than growth in the profession as a whole.

“A recent LawTalk article reveals that in-house now represents 28 percent of the profession. It was 23 percent in 2016,” says Plant.

"The reality is that in-house lawyers are adapting better to practicing law in the modern world, developing skills that their private practice counterparts do not have. They become multidisciplinary, legal-business advisors and not just lawyers."

Working in-house places huge importance on soft skills such as project management, lateral communication, transactional execution and hard skills in technology, business and industry specific areas. The result is more well-rounded lawyers who genuinely understand how to look at things from a business and client perspective. "It's a more modern way of practicing law, rooted in the commercial real world," says Plant.

Private practice lawyers are often stuck in the black-letter law, the unavoidable litigation and work that requires learned legal practitioners and lengthy legal opinions polished to precision. However, there is a volume of other areas of law where private practice has a tendency to follow that same behavior and provide the client with a superfluous amount of information and use of academic- rather than business-speak.

The reality is that clients aren't interested in their lawyers showing off their legal knowledge or marveling at the elegance of their language and the eloquence with which information is conveyed. They hate it when 'accordingly' is added to every second sentence when referring to yet another legal point, usually followed by the dreaded semicolon. As an in-house lawyer, Plant has had his company ask multiple times, "Can you please translate the advice external counsel gave us into normal speak so we can understand what it means?"

The client has an interest in understanding how the law affects their matter, but what they really want is to be told what they need to do about it. No more, no less, just fit-for-purpose advice. In-house lawyers get this: they understand business because they are in business.

"I'm not talking about producing poor quality work, because like lawyers in private practice we are always committed to delivering work to high professional standards,” says Plant. “But quality is relative. In some cases, we need to leave no stone unturned, but more often than not a quick review, a qualified opinion or even an emoji is all that is needed to keep the business wheels moving."  

The good news is that in-house teams are growing, and businesses are hiring more special counsel and harnessing legal tech to automate much of their high-volume, low-value work. They are intentionally giving their in-house counsel more time to focus on strategic matters, to be business advisors' not just legal counsel. It also enables in-house teams to focus on the highly specialized work that is of strategic importance to the business, and which more often than not would have been outsourced.

'Bespoke legal services are what businesses demand," says Plant. They want highly tailored and practical solutions delivered specifically for the business and in language they can understand and implement. And in-house counsel are much more agile and better suited to delivering this than private practice because they are at the heart of the business; they have a better understanding of the business' risk appetite.

The new generation of lawyers don't believe in-house counsel are second-class lawyers. ACC reports that 12 percent of law graduates move straight in-house. While this number is still small, it is increasing. Larger corporations are beginning to establish legal intern and graduate programs, and we can expect to see more of this in the future.

What entices the graduates in-house is the full package of not-just-legal challenges on offer. Lawyers can learn commercial skills, management skills and industry-specific knowledge, and benefit from being involved in a less hierarchal structure than is commonplace in law firms.

"If private practice could adapt and follow in-house's lead, maybe we'd see a migration back," says Plant.

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