In the first of a new series, a lawyer discusses their in-house career journey to date, the lessons they have learned, and offers practical career guidance and advice. First up is I. Stephanie Boyce, director of Create Positive Possibilities and GC to the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists.
I qualified in 2002, but learnt very quickly that private practice was not for me. I wanted the creative freedom to really express myself with my legal skills, but I didn’t feel that private practice would give me that flexibility.
In 2004, I began working for the Bar Council, working in-house as solicitor to the then Complaints Commissioner, investigating complaints of misconduct against barrister members. Having been made redundant twice in as many years, a move in-house seemed obvious in terms of job security and progressing my career.
Working in-house felt different to private practice; for a start, I was no longer having to think in increments of six minutes and remembering to record my work or meet my billable hours for the day. Whilst there was no longer the direct contact with members of the public, I only had one client and didn’t have to deal with money, clients turning up to pay their bill or cheques coming through the post. I no longer had to handle client money and I was working flexibly. I was attending meetings with colleagues as opposed to being in conference.
A move in-house suited me, and it was where I wanted to be going, career-wise.
My in-house career has spanned over 12 years working with regulators, local and central government, membership bodies and academic bodies. Through my time in-house I have learnt a lot in terms of acquired skills and developing myself as a solicitor.
Working in-house does have its drawbacks – for example, you may be the only lawyer working in the organisation; you have to be a general specialist; and day to day you may not actually practise much law, as you are focusing on the business of working in-house. On the other hand, you are becoming more strategic and commercially focused, and acquiring the skills one may otherwise gain by an MBA as you move up the career ladder.
Depending on which role you undertake in-house, you need to quickly build rapport, authority and credibility. You have to liaise and manage external legal services, as working in-house you have to accept that you do not have all the requisite skills that your client requires to meet their needs. This is no reflection on you, so don’t take it personally when you are asked to seek external legal advice to confirm advice you have already given or advice that you are unable to give.
Advice or services from external legal providers is there to support you and the business, and should be viewed as such. As part of your role, you may also manage or control the provision of external legal services, so maintaining a good working relationship is key to success.
Depending on your choice of in-house role, you may find career progression difficult, though not impossible. Working in-house brings with it great potential for career development and training. Whilst at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), I was able to undertake a master’s degree in Public Law and Global Governance, funded by ACCA’s training fund. The fund provides the resources to enable you to undertake further training, which is then clawed back on a sliding scale should you leave the organisation within a set time.
Working in-house may leave you at times questioning your professional obligations, torn between your responsibilities as a solicitor and to the business. Finding the best business solution, rather than a legal solution, can create a tension between your own views of what is right and what is tolerable. As an in-house regulated solicitor, you are still subject to professional obligations and, with this always at the forefront of your mind, your independence may be called into question.
Working in-house has enabled me to create a portfolio career. For me, this is a mixture of paid and unpaid roles that adds to my career development and progression. A portfolio career is a new way of delivering legal advice, boosting my career and learning new skills in order to get the right role and as an aide to personal development and growth.
It was inevitable that I changed my approach to gaining experience and knowledge. I decided that I had had enough of working 9-5, and wanted more control over and flexibility in my work life. In a climate where contractual or part-time working is becoming the norm, it seemed an ideal opportunity to design my career as I saw fit. I was also seeking meaning and purpose, an opportunity to possibly earn money and to give something back to society.
I am currently a Law Society Council member representing the Women Lawyers Division, a member of its Regulatory Affairs Board, and chair of the Council Members’ Conduct Committee. I am a solicitor member to the Joint Tribunal Service, an independent person to the standards committee of my local authority, overseeing exclusion reviews and educational appeals. Through these roles, I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best legal minds and acquired skills that I perhaps wouldn’t have been able to through paid employment.
I have held many positions as an in-house solicitor, latterly as GC. As GC, I operate at executive board level, and report to the chief executive, contribute fully to the corporate leadership, strategic direction and management of the business, ensure delivery of core priorities and participate in the organisational development programme. I exercise an appropriate level of influence and bring more than just legal expertise to the business. I also bring a wealth of other skills that I have acquired along the way that enables me to make tough decisions when necessary and to possess the gravitas and credibility to operate at board level.
To succeed in-house, you must be proactive and agile, able to pounce when the opportunity presents itself, and always be thinking how you can add value. If you believe this to be you then what are you waiting for?