Traditionally, the route to becoming a lawyer in Canada includes the completion of a law degree, followed by the passing of bar exams and a period of training (articling/clerkship) within private practice. In the past decade, this model has been under constant attack as the country experiences a stark increase in lawyer-licensing candidates, market instability and the technological disruptions. Businesses have been reacting by scaling back budgets for external counsel, opting for fixed-fee arrangements, demanding time-intensive legal tasks to be outsourced and engaging alternative legal providers to supply freelance lawyers. One method that has been gaining traction has been for companies to build up their own legal team by taking on trainees and junior lawyers.
Whether you decide to go in-house at the junior end of your legal career is a calculated and personal decision. I was fortunate to have experienced private practice and in-house roles as a junior lawyer. Each has its own benefits and will require different skillsets to do well.
Here are four key differences I have encountered:
Resources and support
At law firms, you will have access to the standard suite of legal research tools, a precedent database and, sometimes, an actual library with an experienced team of librarians. In addition, you may also draw on the expertise of dedicated professional support lawyers and research and training staff. The obvious benefit is being able to speak to lawyers that are highly specialized from a broad range of practice areas. This goes even further for law firms with a national or international presence.
For in-house roles, some companies may provide you with the basic legal research websites, but more often than not, you will be relying on your keen sense of resourcefulness with google searches. Your team will be the first resource you consult; afterwards, you will need to lean on your personal legal network or those of your colleagues to provide advice (and most likely will try to get it as a freebie). Expect to be building your own bank of precedents; bringing your own set will help in-house department tremendously.
Lawyers and support staff will be your colleagues at a law firm. Your core group of colleagues will be your immediate practice group, followed by common cross-practice groups that your group works with regularly (for example, the corporate team seeking advice from employment and real estate teams). Law firm models remain very traditional and still harbour a sense of hierarchy. You will often be classified by your seniority at the firm (junior, senior or partner), and sometimes down to your exact post-qualification level (1 PQE v 10 PQE). Partners are at the top of the food chain, with trainees being the most junior on this scale. Hanging with lawyers daily has its benefits in that everyone can relate to your situation. However, this also means that your work interactions will be limited to this bubble.
As in-house counsel, you are generally seen by the company as the go-to for anything legal. This means that your colleagues will range from back-office staff to business-development professionals. Generally, in-house teams work closely with other business units and resemble another support group as opposed to a fee-earning capacity like in private practice. C-level executives and the general counsel are at the top of the food chain, with all other support groups reporting up. Having a variety of colleagues from different backgrounds to interact with allows you to expand your circle outside of lawyers, gaining valuable insight into other departments.
Client engagement and marketing
As a junior, law firms will invite you to attend as many firm events as possible so that you are seen by clients and can shadow senior lawyers as they conduct business development. You will be doing a lot of volunteering at firm events, as well as a lot of non-billable marketing work such as client memos and presentation decks. Law firms will often have a marketing department that you can work with and learn from as well. They are fantastic places to start learning about personal marketing.
With in-house, you ARE the client. You are invited to events by law firms to which your company gives work and also by potential law firms wanting your business. With smaller legal teams, a junior in-house lawyer will sometimes have a say in which law firms the company engages with. You will not need to engage in any business development work as your sole role is to support the legal affairs of the company. Your value add in this role would be to build up strong relationships with your existing legal network so you can lean on them for advice when needed and for you to reciprocate by offering them work later on.
In law firms, you will need to choose your area of specialty, and you will be expected to learn that area thoroughly, stay updated and become an expert. Your work as a junior will include the repetition of the basics of your area (corporate basics would include due diligence). Law firms tend to emphasize the fundamentals, such as legal drafting, and afford you every opportunity to build those skills up through practice or training seminars.