The speakers were Marlene Costa of the Ontario Securities Commission; Susan Kennedy of Ornge; Linda Lam of Advanced Micro Devices; and Aliya Ramji of Figure 1. The program was entertainingly chaired by Melissa Babel of KPMG Law LLP and Jana Pauk of Dentons.
Some highlights of the questions and answers at the event:
- Why would someone want to go in-house? Linda enjoys the fact that she no longer has to bill or docket her hours. Also on the plus side, being in-house means that she is a part of the business. She gets to see projects from start to finish and help build the business. On the “con” side, in-house lawyers lack the resources of a large firm. In-house lawyers may sit in a cubicle instead of an office. There is no firm library or research lawyer to rely on. In-house counsel are “keen” to get newsletters from lawyers and law firms that help them keep up to date on the law. It is not a 9-5 job that some people believe it to be, but there is more predictability in the work.
- Do you need knowledge of the business world? Aliya observed that at the end of the day you are supporting the business so you have to understand the business. You should have some sort of business acumen and cannot provide “yes” or “no” answers to your “clients”. Your answer should be more: “Yes, if this…or No, but you can do these other five things”. Be prepared to think outside the box and help the business move forward.
- Do you ever outsource your work? Susan will typically outsource for one of three reasons. First, when they need a special skill set. For example, she will not dabble in tax law. Secondly, depending on work volume, they will outsource random one-off or discrete contracts. This is work that just needs to get done that they do not have the person power to do. And the third reason will be where there is one large project where a lot of bodies are needed to get over the finish line.
- How do you find an in-house legal position? Aliya noted that a lawyer’s skills are transferrable. If you can do legal research in securities, you can do legal research in other areas. Do not let yourself get pigeon-holed. Look for little steps to expand your skill set. Susan has hired between 10-15 in-house lawyers during her career. She hires for "fit" first and foremost. Getting your foot in the door can have its challenges as it is usually the Human Resources department who does the first screening. They are not lawyers and may not appreciate your experience. Tailor your application to meet the job description. Figure a way to package your skills to get you through the first screen.
- What happens once you are in-house? How can you progress? Speaking from a public sector viewpoint, Marlene noted it is very slow to go up through the ranks in her organization. Not impossible, but a much slower process than in the private sector. Marlene suggested looking for opportunities to expand your skill set and to seek out experiences outside of your direct group or practice area. This will allow you to position yourself to work in other areas in-house. Also, look for opportunities to volunteer outside of the company as well. She is on the executive of the Public Sector Lawyers Section of the OBA. Linda’s company has set specific steps and levels for in-house lawyer progression.
- Why did you choose in-house? Aliya went in-house “kicking and screaming”. A client offered her a job when she didn’t have one. But it was the best thing that ever happened to her. Part of the reason she was so resistant was because at her previous firm they called in-house the “pink ghetto” (offensive on so many levels!). Now she is building a company that operates in 190 countries and has 43 law firms reporting to her.
These are just a few of the great insights this panel offered. I won’t give all of their tips and tricks away; you will just have to attend the next session. Pathways to Power: Female Founders will be held in Spring 2017.
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