OAK TREE PRESS
In A LIFE WORTH LIVING Michael Smurfit tells his own life story and that of the company he built. He documents the Smurfit Group’s seemingly inexorable growth from humble beginnings, the challenges faced and overcome, and the many deals that continually doubled the size of the business every three or four years. He shows his ‘logical opportunism’ in action, and explains how the Smurfit culture and systems provided a world-beating competitive advantage.
Michael’s life outside Smurfit – his chairmanship of the Racing Board and of Telecom Éireann; his interest in horseracing; and his ownership of The K Club and the triumph that was the Ryder Cup 2006 – all feature, alongside his love and commitment to his family.
Truly a life worth living.
Oak Tree Press develops and delivers information, advice and resources for entrepreneurs and managers. It is Ireland’s leading business book publisher, with an unrivalled reputation for quality titles across business, management, HR, law, marketing and enterprise topics and a unique position in start-up and small business support in Ireland. NuBooks is its recently-launched imprint, publishing short, focused ebooks for busy entrepreneurs and managers. Oak Tree Press is comfortable across a range of communication media – print, web and training – focusing always on the effective communication of business information.
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An extract from The Inside Job: Working as an In-house Lawyer by Patrick Ambrose:
For most Western readers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are considered the founders of the modern fairy tale. Their first edition of Kinder und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) was published in 1812 as a collection of enchanting tales, some of which had very brutal storylines. However, by the seventh and final edition in 1857, the stories had been toned down to suit a respectable middle-class audience, and today the Disney versions of these tales that are universally familiar have been bleached of the impassive horror of the originals.
Many lawyers hold the view that an in-house role is a fairy-tale job of 9 to 5, stability, and work-life balance. The reality can be very different and, like any role, there are drawbacks that may make it an unsuitable career path for some. This chapter dispels some of the myths about going in-house and highlights points to consider before deciding whether it is the right career move for you.
Poisoned apples and oranges
In the tale of Snow White that we are all familiar with, a wicked stepmother orders a huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her heart back as proof, but the huntsman cannot bring himself to do the evil deed and returns with the heart of a boar. However, in the original Brothers Grimm version, the huntsman is sent by Snow White’s jealous mother (not her stepmother) to bring back her lungs and liver, which she plans to cook and eat. The original tale also includes her mother’s punishment: she is forced to dance at Snow White’s wedding in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead.
Every career choice involves trade-offs; this is true whether you move in-house or stay in private practice. Certainly, there can be gruelling demands on practitioners in private practice, with long working hours, time recording, and a pressure to generate business that is only likely to increase the longer you stay at a firm. However, law firms are increasingly open to flexi-time, reduced hours, or telecommuting for valued lawyers and, just as being in private practice does not necessarily mean an unreasonable grind, an in-house position does not necessarily mean a life free from pressure. Today, lawyers with sophisticated practices work hard whether in private practice or in-house, and, increasingly, many in-house departments are run like law firms where different departments within the organisation are considered clients and in-house lawyers must record how they spend their time. And, with budgets being squeezed, more pressure is being put on in-house lawyers to keep work in-house rather than to seek external legal advice.
One of the biggest challenges for the novice in-house lawyer is learning to tailor advice to fit the business, as this will go against many years of training at your law firm to advise clients cautiously. Unless you move to an organisation with a large legal department, you may need to become a generalist, as opposed to the specialist you may have been at the law firm, and, as a result, moving back to a law firm can be difficult. In addition, unlike law firms where the lawyers are the producers, in-house lawyers are a cost to the business and it can be a difficult task to explain your value, particularly where protecting the organisation’s best interests may mean telling business people that they cannot do what they want to do.
Does the shoe fit?
The beautiful Cinderella is swept off her feet by a handsome prince, despite the efforts of her wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters. In the more sinister version by the Brothers Grimm, the stepsisters are told by their mother to cut off their toes and the heels of their feet until the slipper fits, but the plan is discovered when blood pours from the shoe.
Not all in-house jobs are the same. You may be working in a large legal department with a wide range of lawyers or you may be in a small organisation as the sole point of contact for all legal queries, but it is largely a matter of personality and working style as to which suits you. There is likely to be more mentoring in a large legal department but, on the other hand, you may not have as much responsibility as you would like or can handle. Conversely, in a smaller legal department, a junior lawyer may be given substantially more responsibility and may interact more regularly with senior executives, but may not have to deal with legal issues that are very complex or interesting.
Whatever the in-house role you take, leaving a firm to go in-house means accepting a significant change in work environment. At a firm, you may be used to spending time with other lawyers, and you may have become accustomed to delegating tasks to support staff, but in an in-house environment it can be a shock to find you now have do many of the tasks you once delegated. In smaller organisations, you may no longer have access to the same array of legal research materials as you did in the law firm, so the size of the in-house legal department may dictate how much experience you should already have.
In the modern tale, Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold for a young girl who faces death and, in return, he asks for her first-born child. She agrees, but when the day comes to hand over the child she cannot do it. Rumpelstiltskin tells her that he will call off the bargain if she can guess his name, and when she does so, having overheard him singing his name by a fire, Rumpelstiltskin goes into a rage, driving his right foot so far into the ground that he sinks up to his waist and then he disappears forever. In the 1857 Brothers Grimm version, however, his rage concludes with him seizing his left foot with both hands and tearing himself in two.
Law firms have defined stages of career advancement that can be attained by performance, but many in-house law departments have a flat reporting structure with the entire legal staff reporting to the Head of Legal or General Counsel. Although there may be opportunities for promotions in large law departments, generally speaking opportunities for advancement are limited and may involve a lateral move into a non-legal position, or moving to a new organisation. Even if you do not plan to move, in-house legal departments can be downsized and companies can go out of business, and in searching for your next in-house legal job a private practitioner competing for the same role is arguably more employable than in-house colleagues.
Keeping legal skills from deteriorating is also a significant challenge. For some organisations, a large portion of the responsibility of an in-house lawyer is to manage the outsourcing of challenging work to law firms, and you may be involved in little, if any, sophisticated legal work. For some, this is the ideal job, but others may feel frustrated at not using skills they have worked hard to obtain in the law firm.
The timing of a move in-house depends largely on your career objectives also. If your desire to go in-house is driven by an interest in switching to the business side of an organisation, it may be best to make the move as a relatively junior lawyer, as once you have been practicing for a while it will be more difficult for business people to see you as anything other than a lawyer. If your objective is to become an in-house senior lawyer or General Counsel, then staying at a law firm until you are at least a senior associate will maximise your opportunities.
Paying the piper
In the tale of the Pied Piper, first published in the Brothers Grimm Deutsche Sagen in 1816, a piper offers to rid the town of Hamelin of rats. The villagers agree to pay a vast sum of money if the piper can do it, but when he does so they refuse to pay. In most modern variants, the piper plays a tune that draws the children to a cave out of the town, but he sends them back when the villagers pay up. In the darker original, the piper leads the children to a river where all but one lame boy who could not keep up are drowned.
Remuneration at a large law firm generally aligns with the stage of your career, with bonuses paid depending on performance. The average salary for a private practitioner still far exceeds those of their in-house colleagues and, at some of the biggest firms, partner-level remuneration can be immense. While not all law firms are the same, generally speaking the longer you stay at a law firm, the more likely it is that you will become financially independent.
By contrast, compensation as an in-house lawyer can be much less predictable and varies depending on the industry, career stage, number of employees and how much in demand your expertise is. You may receive significantly more in bonus and compensation, or you may be offered less than your starting salary in private practice. Alternatively, in start-up companies, in-house lawyers may receive share options in lieu of a competitive basic salary, and while this has a potential financial upside, the past few years should highlight the risk of going down this route.
The economic stability of law firms is also worth noting. Law firms are generally much more stable than companies in other industries, particularly full-service law firms that have a diverse client base able to absorb the failure or loss of one or more major clients. Although even large law firms occasionally go under (such as the major US law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf, which filed for bankruptcy in New York in May 2012), these events are seen as remarkable. Conversely, companies go out of business all the time. In-house lawyers employed at public sector entities are not immune either, as they will always be at the mercy of public sector cuts.
My, what a great job you have
There is a happy ending to the modern version of Little Red Riding Hood, where a naïve girl foolishly takes the advice of a wicked wolf that wants to eat her, but is ultimately saved from this fate by a woodsman. This is a more pleasant outcome than the Brothers Grimm tale, where she is eaten by the wolf and only freed when the woodsman slits open the wolf’s belly.
The general moral of the story is to be wary of the advice of strangers. Gathering as much information about your options as you can, such as by speaking with former colleagues who have left private practice to go in-house, finding out how they spend their days, and seeking their advice on where you might best fit in a corporate environment, is the best way to make good career choices.
If you are fortunate enough to be offered an in-house job, look at the reporting structure to see where the Head of Legal sits in the senior management structure and find out how lawyers are regarded in the organisation. It is also important to understand whether the organisation has had an in-house lawyer previously or whether you will be the first. If the latter, it is essential to understand exactly what is expected of you and what resources/support will be available so that you can be confident that the role is comparable to your skills, ability and experience.
Moving to an established public company may work well for some and joining a venture capital-backed start-up may work well for others, but going in-house is not the right career choice for everyone. Even if it is the right move for you, it is important to understand that there are aspects of law firm life that you may still miss.
A role that’s just right
The Brothers Grimm (who, incidentally, both studied law) did not have a monopoly on gruesome fairy tales. In the original tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the bears rip Goldilocks apart and eat her, and the very first version of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen is characterised by great cruelty: eyes are pecked out, toes sawn off, and drowning is commonplace.
Fairytales of old sought to introduce people to the dark side of life, while keeping the horror at a safe distance. Over time, the more chilling aspects of these tales have been discarded and, in the same way, the tales private practitioners have heard about life in-house may not reflect the potential downside. The reality is that going in-house is one of the most significant career decisions a lawyer will ever make: for some, it may be a job they do happily ever after, but others may regret ever fleeing the highest room in the tallest tower of the law firm. But, by doing your research and finding a role that is the right fit, you may be one of the lucky ones who find that the fairytale can come true.
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