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Moving in-house

Is it right for you?


When lawyers think about moving from a law firm or government agency to an in-house position, they’re often looking for a better work/life balance, a steady salary, a pension plan and — hopefully — less stress.

But there are important things to consider before making such a move. “Your hours are not necessarily as predictable as you might think,” says Jim Spurr, corporate legal counsel and secretary to the board of the Halifax Regional Water Commission. “You’re a salaried employee, your benefits can be very lucrative, with annual bonuses, stock options, performance shares. But you don’t get all of that by simply working from nine to five.”

The CEO can call at any time, says Spurr, who has taken calls at night, on the weekend and while on vacation.

As part of the executive or senior management team, an in-house lawyer must have or develop a good understanding of business principles. Since not all lawyers have a background in business — or much interest in it — not everyone is cut out for the job.

There can be a steep learning curve after being hired, so it’s imperative to learn the big picture of the new organization, its strategy, culture and how it operates. And being called into seemingly endless meetings can come as a shock to some.

Sarah Black at LNG Canada in Calgary was surprised by the role’s scope and breadth, and says, “the practice of law is really just a piece of the overall partnering and value that can be added.” Black also “underestimated the personal onus and responsibility of ‘practice management,’” including “filing, reviewing bills, document and word processing support, etc., that we get so used to in a big firm.”

For those who are an organization’s sole counsel, the lack of legal colleagues can make the position a lonely one, so it’s important to maintain a strong network.

Do your homework before making a move. “Talk to some people who are in-house, particularly if they’re in your sector of the economy,” says Spurr, and ask “What does life look like for you?”