In-house intriguing career option

In-house intriguing career option

21 January, 2013

Ed Waitzer follows the legal profession from numerous vantage points. He’s currently a partner with Stikeman Elliott LLP, specializing in corporate governance. He also teaches at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and Schulich School of Business.
He has served as chairman of Stikeman Elliott. Back in the 1990s, he was chairman of the Ontario Securities Commission.
It’s a thick resume, and it’s given him the chance to take note of a lot of trends in the profession. For most of his 35-year career in corporate law, the conventional wisdom was that in-house lawyers shipped all the interesting work to outside counsel. Now he sees an interesting shift. The legal teams at larger corporations — the banks, the utilities, and conglomerates – are becoming more specialized and more innovative. In-house legal counsel are adopting the same efficiency strategies their employers use in other departments.
“I think that for the large organizations, the conventional wisdom may be getting turned on its head,” he says. “At my stage, it’s too late to matter, but never in my life have I thought about going in-house. If I were at a stage of life where I was thinking about these things, it would be very much on my mind.”
This is the time of year when such thoughts are on the minds of entrants to the legal profession. The academic year has just wrapped up, and recent law school graduates are gearing up for their articling years. Meanwhile, the batch of articling students now finishing the apprenticeship are jockeying for full-time legal jobs. Where once Bay Street was the target destination for all aspiring corporate lawyers, in-house is emerging as an exciting alternative. From a personal perspective, I’m seeing this play out through The Canadian General Counsel Awards. Tickets are on sale for this year’s gala at the Fairmont Royal York on June 11 in Toronto. The awards, which this year are sponsored by MercedesBenz, were founded by the National Post and ZSA Legal Recruitment eight years ago.
I serve on the advisory board, and that job gives me a front-row seat on the breadth of talent that is working in-house these days.
So I’m not surprised to see a private practitioner like Mr. Waitzer observe how he’s changed the way he views the in-house legal business. It’s not that he sees a binary future, where young lawyers need to make a calculated bet on either private practice or going in-house. Rather, what he sees happening is that in-house is presenting itself as a much more intriguing option than in the past.
I put this to Christopher Sweeney of ZSA Legal Recruitment, our founding partner with the CGCAs. He says in-house departments enjoy a regular work flow that makes it easier for them to discover more efficient ways of working. But he adds that this doesn’t give in-house teams a monopoly on innovation. Firms in private practice are rapidly adapting to challenges, too. The point is, he sees plenty of interesting opportunities on either side.
One change he can foresee is that firms in private practice will find that clients will be more specific in the services they request. “I don’t see private practice law firms losing their niche. I simply see that their niches are going to contract.”
Indeed, this reflects views from several in-house counsel. They note that they are limiting the amount of work they ship to outside counsel.
Sanjeev Dhawan, president of the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel and a senior legal counsel at Hydro One Networks Inc. in Toronto, says in-house lawyers get to develop unique industry expertise and sit at the table when their employers plot out business strategy.
“Corporations will be going to law firms for specific surgical advice. I think the trend definitely is very positive for corporate counsel,” he says.
Kenneth Fredeen, general counsel with Deloitte and Touche LLP, agrees. His legal department builds expertise around the issues unique to the accounting profession. The work that gets shipped to outside counsel tends to involve matters, such as negotiating commercial leases, which don’t come up frequently enough to justify the need for an in-house expert.
“The good work or the great work stays in-house,” Mr. Fredeen says. “It’s the work that we don’t like doing that is quite often sent outside to external counsel. In my view, lawyers can practise more interesting, deeper, better law in-house.”
Yet private firms are not ignoring the change in attitudes. On the contrary, many are following the trends closely.
Andrew Fleming, a senior partner with Norton Rose Canada LLP, has watched how general counsel have changed the way they do business. It used to be that you went to your lawyer for everything, he says. That has given way to something called disaggregation, where a general counsel will now farm out very specific tasks to different outside legal counsel or third-party service providers.
“All of a sudden the case is being handled by an in-house lawyer who is the conductor-inchief, bringing all these pieces together. So what you’ve done is disaggregated the transaction,” Mr. Fleming says.
Also watching is Paul Boniferro of McCarthy Tétrault LLP, the firm’s national leader of practices and people. His job involves tracking how the national business firm works with clients to ensure that the firm meets their needs as efficiently as possible. “The focus is now on client service innovation,” he explains.
This could mean more opportunities for young lawyers in the sense that joining a big corporate firm need not be the only game in town, he says.
“Working for one of us in one of the Bay Street, downtown law firms is not the be-all and end-all. In fact, every year more opportunities become available for young people to work outside the Bay Street law firms.”


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