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There has been significant growth in the number of in-house lawyers in Australia over the past decade, with the in-house profession now representing the fastest growing segment of the Australian legal sector. The ACC Australia Graduate Profile Handbook traces the legal careers of several young ACC Australia members, details how they arrived at their first in-house counsel role, and offers key lessons learnt in these roles. Based on excerpts from the handbook, this article outlines tips and lessons from these graduates’ in-house journey.

     1. Prioritize work and convince the business team

“My first in-house position was at the University of Canberra. When I started this role, I was one of only two in-house lawyers doing the university’s day-to-day commercial work and later became the only one when my colleague left. Obviously, the university’s demand for legal services exceeded my ability to help, so I had to learn to be better at prioritising work based on its importance to the university. As it was also my first in-house position, I had to learn very quickly that there are quirks to practising in-house. For example, it was challenging to convince some teams within the university to use the legal team to draft and review their contracts when they had not involved lawyers in the past. I also learnt quickly that I enjoyed working in multi-disciplinary teams with other colleagues across the university.”
-Andrew Paloni, Commercial Lawyer at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)

     2. Use commercial acumen

“I wanted to work as part of a business with all different experiences, not just legal, and really draw on my broader commercial acumen. I was a company lawyer for a further four years, and I am now Head of Legal for the global business, which comprises seven brands in 19 countries, 1,500 stores and 22,000 team members. Although I learnt a lot working in a firm, I think that it somewhat thwarted my ability to give broader commercial advice and stick to the black letter of the law. I wanted to be “in” the businesses I was advising, otherwise, it just felt like giving ad hoc advice to multiple businesses without ever really seeing a project through to completion. I also like that businesses are made up of all types of skill sets you can learn from, not just legal.”
-Shannon Landers, Head of Legal at Cotton On Group

     3. Manage business stakeholders’ competing interests

“Being employed by the company means you can usually spend more time solving problems without having to worry about time recording and fee estimates. In-house lawyers generally see projects from end to end and are intimately involved throughout different stages, so there is a sense of being part of the game, rather than giving advice from the sidelines (although that’s not always a good thing!). Also, depending on the size of the legal team, in-house lawyers tend to get a variety of work and aren’t limited to one area of law, which is pretty common in firms. The most challenging aspect, though, is stakeholder management. Being part of an organisation often means that different stakeholders may need to be consulted on any legal advice, and these stakeholders may have competing interests, which can impact how advice is received, or how valuable your input is to them.”
-Matthew Southwell, Senior Legal Advisor, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, VIC

     4. Fulfil your role as gatekeeper, and leverage information and consistent processes

“I really enjoy the consistency of process and the wealth of context that you have when working in-house, and the great relationships you can build with your internal stakeholders. I believe that those two factors are very important in providing great in-house legal service. The most challenging part is occasionally seeing your stakeholders disregard your legal advice based on commercial interests. This can be hard at first, but it is an important part of your function as legal counsel and comes with the territory. Sometimes the in-house counsel has to be the gatekeeper, or the “no” person, which can be challenging for relationships with your internal stakeholders but ultimately is usually for the good of the organisation.”
-Hannah Bierre, Legal Counsel at the Movember Foundation

     5. Identify resources and connect with the business

The best part of my in-house career has been getting involved in so many aspects of the business. This, in turn, helps me to build relationships with stakeholders, which makes it so much easier to provide legal advice to the business and to have this advice accepted and appreciated. I find this unique to in-house and I think it’s fantastic! Conversely, the most challenging aspects are accessing legal resources and dealing with the isolation sometimes felt from the legal industry. When working as a lawyer in-house, you are a support function to the business’ core operation, so accessing resources can be difficult. Also, many of my contacts are “business” contacts rather than legal contacts, so it can feel a little isolating at times.”
-Courtenay Zajicek, Legal Counsel at Nando’s

     6. Take leadership positions and learn from a diverse group

“My role involves advising across all Nissan businesses, including the Nissan and Infiniti motor companies, our financial services arm and our manufacturing facility. We also collaborate with our legal colleagues in the region on various projects and matters. The legal team at Nissan is small—three of us—so while we have our own subject matter expertise, we are generalist lawyers and advise across all business and legal areas. In my time at Nissan I have had to lead matters independently, take leadership positions in various cross-functional teams and learn to be comfortable advising on business up to the C-suite level. Compared with my previous work at the law firm, I am now surrounded by an incredibly diverse group of people, all of whom I can learn something from, no matter what their speciality is.”
-Andrew Lee, Senior Legal Counsel at Nissan Australia

     7. Develop relationships with a network of advisors

“As an in-house lawyer, I recommend seeking opportunities to gain exposure to the wider business, because the better you understand the business, the more strategic legal advice you can provide and the more value you can deliver to the organisation. I also can’t stress enough the importance and value of a good network of law firms and advisors. As a generalist in-house lawyer, you will always need external assistance to ensure you keep up to date with legislative and regulatory changes, and sometimes you’ll need expert or specialist advice. If you build these relationships early then you’ll have advisors that you can simply pick up the phone to without paying for advice every time. I still work to grow and develop my networks as much as possible by attending conferences, seminars and industry events. I’d recommend it to anyone, because you never know when you’ll be looking for a new opportunity.”
-Jaci Langford, Legal Counsel (commercial) for ANZ at Specsavers

     8. Create trust within and outside the legal team

“I’ve had a fantastic experience at Telstra, both in terms of the work I’ve been exposed to and the leadership opportunities that have been afforded me. It’s also reinforced that one of the things I’m most passionate about is people development. Guiding my team to become better in-house lawyers and seeing them thrive and develop has been the best part of my job and a career highlight to date. I’m passionate about the leadership elements of my role and I’m keen to ensure that I can continue to develop these going forward. The advice I give to my team is that so much of our success as in-house lawyers is based on our ability to create trust – trust within the legal team, with our internal clients, with our external law firm providers and with our customers. Therefore, it’s important to put time into building strong relationships and giving people confidence in what we do.”
-Peter Garrow, Practice Manager at Telstra

     9. Understand the basics of the business

“Working in-house, I also need to be more than a lawyer, and at least have a base level understanding about the business, its products, services and industry. Being in an in-house role means you get to learn about engineering, cyber-security, financial services, emerging transport technologies, or whatever it is that your business does. In my view, this makes the job all the more interesting, because you feel you are truly part of something – you are supporting and contributing to innovation and fulfilling market needs. That being said, the most challenging aspect of being in-house actually stems directly from the best aspect. The diversity of work, responsibility and considerations also brings a big challenge in staying across all of the information relevant to your role. This is where a strong external and internal network and good systems for sharing information are key.” 
-Lena Chapple, Legal Counsel at Thales Australia

     10. Enjoying autonomy and collaboration

“I really feel like I have found a role that suits me. It has all the advantages of my old private practice role (in terms of work interest and variety) with none of the drawbacks, like billable hours, dealing with difficult clients, or having to switch focus all the time. I have much more autonomy and I am learning to trust my own judgment and manage my own time, but with the guidance of my boss when I need it. The best part of my role is working so collaboratively with everyone. We are all working towards a common goal, and all aspects of the business need legal help at times. I love that we are a global company, that one minute I am on a call with Vix South Africa, the next I am emailing a draft contract to Thailand, and then lodging documents with ASIC.“
-Melanie Callow, Junior Lawyer and Assistant Company Secretary at Vix Technology 

     11. Train to stay relevant and be a facilitator

“In a small- to medium-size legal team, you’re not surrounded by lawyers all day every day as is the case in a large law firm or large in-house team. You need to work harder and be creative to ensure your legal skills, and those of your team, are developing and staying relevant. There’s no easy solution for this other than remaining conscious of it and treating training as a priority. As in-house lawyers are only as effective as the quality of the relationships we build – our clients need to trust us enough to pick up the phone and talk to us about their emerging issues. We need to be relied upon to help facilitate the desired outcome and not be a roadblock to be worked around or avoided.”
-Michael Hogan, General Counsel at Wormald


In-house counsel are essential members of their company’s team. They play a strategic role in helping the business to achieve business goals. Whether it’s building relationships internally to gain trust, creating a network of external experts to help in times of need, getting creative with your time and skills to solve a myriad of issues, or having difficult discussions with stakeholders to ensure that their business decisions take into account sound legal advice, in-house counsel use a wide array of skills, and their work often touches many activities of their organisation. 

ACC would like to extend our thanks to all who contributed to the ACC Australia: Graduate Profile Handbook. Please find additional insight and professional development stories in ACC Australia Women in the house handbook.

Additional Resources
ACC Leadership Skills Collection
ACC Resource Library
ACC New to In-house Network (for ACC members)
ACC Practice Networks (for ACC members)


Region: Australia, Australia / Pacific, Global
The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.

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