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Why aspiring solicitors should consider the in-house path

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By Sophie Dillon on

Nissan legal counsel, Joan Scott, reflects on her career journey to date and discusses the unique challenges that come with working for some of the world’s largest companies

“Meetings, meetings, meetings,” Joan Scott, legal counsel at Nissan, tells Legal Cheek Careers about her day-to-day. “I’m three days into my brand-new role, and I’ve had three completely different days. This is the beauty of working in-house: no two days will ever be the same. Often, when working in a multinational company, given that the company itself is your client, you could be advising a huge number of different teams from across the world, so your client roster varies daily too. As such, there is a huge diversity of work, and the only thing that you can be sure of is that you will have lots of meetings!”

For Joan, her varied legal career has taken her all over the world from Brussels to New York – and this was before she had even begun her training contract! So, I was curious to ask her why she took the in-house path. She confesses that, “after ten years of working in private practice, I was ready for a change. I loved private practice, and it had given me a fantastic foundation for my legal career, but I ultimately knew that this wasn’t for me. Personally, when it came to training as a solicitor, I already had a lot of varied legal experience under my belt, so I was in a position where I really knew what I wanted for myself.”

Digging into her reasons for embarking on an in-house legal career, I ask Joan what initially drew her to a path that is often overlooked by aspiring lawyers. “Firstly,” she begins, “when I was in private practice, I worked for so many different corporate clients. This meant that I never had a full grasp of how my legal advice was fitting into the business itself; I was acutely aware that my research and advice were given in silo without understanding the bigger picture for each client.” She emphasises that when working in-house, you can become intimately acquainted with the operation of the company that you work for, in a way which is quite unique to in-house counsel.

Nissan legal counsel Joan Scott

“Through working in-house for multinational companies, I’ve had the unique opportunity to work with amazing people all over the world, looking at how my legal advice is going to impact the business on a global scale,” she says. “I’m very much a people person, so another attraction of working in-house for me is the opportunity to be around colleagues who aren’t all necessarily lawyers. When you’re in-house, the legal function is one of many functions within the company. You’re advising different teams who don’t necessarily have an idea of what you’re talking about in a legal sense, so you’re able to gain an understanding of the many perspectives of the various business teams you advise, be that finance, marketing, human resources or sustainability. It’s a perfect opportunity to learn from different people, from all over the world, who each have their own expertise outside of the law: I absolutely love that about my role.”

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Secondly, she tells us, “I was getting older.” Making sure to dispel the myth that in-house lawyers have it cushy, Joan says, “There is a misconception that in-house solicitors have an ‘easy life’ – they do not!” But, she caveats, “I will say this: when you’re working in-house, it’s a little bit easier to manage your time. You are not on-call to multiple clients to the same degree as you are in private practice, so the hours in-house are less likely to skew into late-late nights and early morning hours in that vein. So, the possibility of having a better work-life balance was another factor, for me, in looking for in-house opportunities.”

Joan’s days tend to see her “firefighting” and tackling a broad range of legal issues as they pop up across the company, which can be a challenge unique to in-house legal work. “Because there are so many different teams in a business, particularly in a multinational company, you may not get roped in until something has gone wrong,” she explains. “So, one of the biggest challenges of working in-house is to ingratiate yourself within the business teams as a value-adding business partner ahead of time. You’re trying to get ahead of any legal problems because typically, working in-house means you tend to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to legal issues, that’s if you haven’t built the business relationships ahead of time.”

On the other hand, she emphasises, this brings with it the unique opportunity to get your fingers into multiple legal pies. “A lot of in-house teams are lean,” she reveals, “and you have to deal with firefighting in a lot of different jurisdictions.” Especially when the economy is down, and budgets for in-house teams can be stretched, she tells us that “in-house teams will undertake the tasks which may usually be reserved for external counsel”. In less jargon-y words, this means that in-house lawyers will undertake work normally outsourced to external law firms, “for example complex corporate work, or IP litigation”. In this sense, Joan emphasises the opportunity this gives to in-house lawyers in terms of exposure to a vast array of practice areas. “I’m a commercial lawyer,” she says, “but I have developed skills in many different areas because of this, and it creates a very well-rounded lawyer.”

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This variety of exposure to various practice areas is clearly reflected in the divergence between training in-house vs in private practice. We ask Joan her thoughts on this, given her exposure to both. “In both private practice and in-house, you will find the training experience demanding,” she warns.

“In any regard, at trainee level, you’re given the opportunity to develop the fundamental skills that you need to become a great lawyer. When it comes to the differences between training in-house and in private practice, in the latter you’ll typically have a structured seat rotation system which gives you the opportunity to focus on each practice area for a certain amount of time,” Joan explains. “My experience training in-house was very different. I had no seat rotations as such, which meant that I could be given several tasks each day that pertained to a different ‘practice area’ from commercial real estate in the morning to an employment dispute in the afternoon. This was challenging, but it fitted in with what I personally love to do and prepared me well for being an in-house counsel for a multinational where I have a lot of juggling to do. This juggling is a skill and suits certain types of people – it’s not for everyone,” she adds.

In this vein, I ask Joan what her advice would be to those who are attracted to training in-house and what it really takes to be an in-house lawyer. Firstly, she stresses the importance of gaining experience. “This means putting in your dues; if you have a goal, and you know what you want to achieve, put the work in that you need to secure that end,” she says. And, when it comes to in-house lawyering, she continues, “working in-house is not for everyone, and it suits certain types of people. The only way to gain a real understanding of which role suits you is to gain experience in each.” But she insists, for those already set on an in-house career, “you should never underestimate the value of non-legal work experience.”

She tells Legal Cheek Careers, “A lot of students may have worked in retail or hospitality and become worried about their lack of legal experience. If you’re keen to work in-house, look inwards towards the companies where you have already worked and seek legal opportunities there. When you have experience at the customer end in a non-legal role, you have incredible inside perspective on how the business operates, which is invaluable to bring into a legal role.”

Joan gives us two key pieces of advice for law students taking the first steps towards a legal career. “My biggest takeaways are, firstly, that you need to know who you are – are you a people person good at building relationships with different people or do you prefer to keep your head down in the nuance of the legal text? Secondly, what type of work resonates with you, in terms of diversity of workload? This insight can be achieved through gaining work experience, and you can use these to your advantage when making your next moves.”

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Joan Scott will be speaking alongside other in-house lawyers at ‘How to qualify as a solicitor in-house’, a virtual student event taking place this Wednesday (31 January). Apply to attend.

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