Image Alt

The Singapore Law Gazette

Going In-house: A View from the Bottom

There seems to be a trend of lawyers going in-house at a younger age, and nowadays some companies may not even require their new in-house counsels to have experience in private practice. The internet is full of articles listing the pros and cons of an in-house career, but how much of it is actually true?

A bit of background about myself, and getting a foot in the door

I graduated from the University of Tasmania with a combined Arts (majoring in Japanese language) and Law degree after five long years of study (for the uninitiated, Tasmania is the apple-shaped island off the southern coast of Australia). After completing my legal practice course, I made my way back to Singapore to complete the Part A exams. Four years flew by while completing my relevant legal training and practice training period, as well as the Part B exams, at the Land Titles Registry in the Singapore Land Authority. While occasionally looking out for jobs that would allow me to use Japanese at work, three years as a conveyancing lawyer followed, then I sort of just fell into this role when a recruiter contacted me about the opening after I had applied for another opportunity. After a whirlwind recruitment process (which is a whole story in itself), I was in!

So, are the generalisations that people make about an in-house career true e.g. better work/life balance at the expense of being viewed almost like a second-class lawyer, for example?

Recently I had to work with a firm to reply to a Letter of Demand (for which I had already drafted the reply but my bosses wanted it to be issued through a firm) and the partner made an off-the-cuff comment about “non-legally trained persons like yourselves”. I took only a tiny bit of offence at that, so we probably will never work with them again while I’m around.


Things will likely be different in larger in-house departments, but the team in Singapore is small: just myself and two bosses who straddle departments, but in reality, the hierarchy is almost horizontal. I’m also the first legal recruit outside of Japan, so aside from following the company’s internal rules on contract checking (which also isn’t available in English), I have pretty much been blazing (or muddling) my way through: finding out what works and what doesn’t, setting up working systems, processes and procedures, that sort of thing. And since there wasn’t any precedent of how to do things, I could afford to experiment.

The burning question – working hours and work/life balance?

I think there is a general stereotype that Japanese companies are rigid, strict, have long working hours and regular after-hours drinking sessions. One would think that it would translate into all roles at the company, regardless of what people generally describe in-house working hours as. However, it has been almost the exact opposite here: working hours are adhered to quite strictly, meaning no communications or expectations to do anything after hours or over the weekends, and the company (or my department anyway) has been extremely flexible with work arrangements so far. Since most of my department (which consists of the administrative, accounts and credit teams) are parents with young children, this flexibility is very deeply appreciated. Also, my immediate superior also happens to be allergic to alcohol!

Less legal work then?

Well, technically almost everything I do is legal work, but I would say traditional legal work (like contract checking) takes up less than 40% of my time. The rest is spent on a variety of things: attending to ad hoc enquiries, drafting and designing training materials, internal documents, and policies, conducting legal knowledge workshops, the occasional translation or two … and generally making sure that everything continues ticking over.

And it’s great! I love it. Conveyancing did get a bit monotonous after a while (putting it mildly there) so the variety of things to do here keeps work interesting. It reminds me a bit of the days in public service where aside from normal work, we occasionally get roped into various committees or work groups to carry out a new initiative, or organise the annual Dinner and Dance, that sort of thing.

What about individual autonomy?

My superiors are not micromanagers and I don’t have a formal set of KPIs, so I set my own targets and have to find ways to fill the downtime between checking contracts and other legal responsibilities. Thought of a way to improve work processes? Draft a proposal, support my suggestions and submit for consideration. New case law on non-compete clauses? Suddenly I’m on a three-day crash course on employment law, powered by Google, Wikipedia and the internet. Noticed that the traders keep coming back with similar questions? Draft a set of training materials and schedule a knowledge sharing session. Come across an unfamiliar term in a contract? Finish the review, then take a deep dive into that particular industry for the rest of the week. When it comes to my individual job scope, the world is my oyster. Of course, the above is subject to me actually having the time to do so, lest I come across as having too much time on my hands.

Personally, I feel that this freedom really allows me to grow as a lawyer and individual. I’ve not been confined to any particular field of law, and I think I’ve gained more knowledge in fields outside of law that I would not have been exposed to otherwise. No offence to conveyancers and the industry as a whole either, but I’m glad to have been able to leave it behind.

Let’s talk future prospects

For my previous lack of corporate/commercial experience, I think I’m paid quite fairly (according to those salary surveys I get annually from various recruitment firms). In terms of career progression, I’m not really sure. What’s above a Legal Counsel who already has regional responsibilities? “Senior Legal Counsel”? “Head Legal, ASEAN” perhaps? Does it really matter though? For me, it’s probably a “no”.

What has been afforded to me though, is cross-department training, something that isn’t a thing in Singapore but is widespread in Japan. I’ve been able to learn more about our Credit and Risk Management operations, and I’ll probably get to learn more about our HR side of things too in preparation (hopefully!) for some managerial role in future. So, there is progression for sure, just that it’s not entirely vertical.

Another thing that I noticed was that, once I updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect my new job, I started getting a lot more messages from recruiters asking if I was open to new in-house opportunities. So, people were more willing to consider me as a potential candidate, compared to not being considered at all. It felt like I had magically become more qualified for all of these roles overnight just because I was already an in-house counsel.

Surely life isn’t a bed of roses though?

Of course not! Here are some of the challenges I have faced so far:

Working alone (kind of)

Remember I said my bosses straddle departments? Legal work probably consists of about 15-20% of my direct report’s time, and even less for his direct report. So, it can get a little lonely sometimes: there’s no one to bounce ideas off, no one to really discuss the finer points of legal theory etc. The person I have the closest working relationship with in the company aside from my superiors is probably our HR representative. Essentially, I did feel that I had to go out and get to know some people (which is part of the reason why I’m writing this now, after volunteering for a Law Society committee) and joining industry associations such as the SCCA etc. (Barely) maintaining contacts from school, previous workplaces and past internships also helped.

Advising the business

This was the hardest thing for me (though I felt that my experience in conveyancing actually helped!) The challenge here was twofold: how to get a legal concept across to the traders without making it too complex, and how to give effective advice. In my stints in public service and private practice, I also had to get the legal concepts across to people who were not legally trained. Case in point: what is a caveat in conveyancing? It is a legal document lodged with the Land Registry to give notice of an interest in land. But some people hear the phrase “legal document” and just tune out after that. So how does one bring that concept across? I liked to compare it to chope-ing a spot at the hawker centre, where your caveat is the packet of tissue placed on the table or seat to show that it’s taken. That’s never failed so far.

Also, I have to give proper, measured advice that actually answers the question, not the kind of non-answer that some lawyers (and especially the public service!) like to give to reduce or avoid liability/cover backside. What really irked me at SLA was that, even though we were THE Authority, we couldn’t give an authoritative answer on our own governing act. Instead, it’s “please seek independent legal advice.” I also had to get out of the mindset of simply going “well yeah, that’s not allowed” to going “well, that may be a bit problematic because of XXX, but what about YYY?”

Resources (or a lack thereof)

Another challenge of working in a small team is a lack of resources. We don’t earn revenue so we are fully funded by the sales departments, which also means that costs are not to be incurred except where absolutely necessary. So, all the fancy new legal tech and contract management software, all those seminars and legal conferences that require payment of fees – that’s pretty much all out of reach unless the powers above feel that it is that important to justify the payment.

Balancing between colleagues and the company

The final “hard” part of the job is when I have to advise colleagues on certain actions that the company has taken that is perceived to be not entirely to their benefit but is within the confines of the law. Since I’m part of the minions, it can be a little hard to stay neutral and impartial when the company makes certain decisions and I have to get it across to everyone else in a nice way. Also, although I’m generally not involved in the decision-making process, I feel that being that bridge of communication has given me some insight into what management has to consider when making such decisions.

Any parting comments?

I’m glad to be able to say that I’ve been enjoying my time here. It’s especially nice to be able to see how my humble work has been able to influence or change things, from implementation of suggestions to seeing the slow, steady growth of the ASEAN legal team. So why not seriously consider it if an opportunity comes around? Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

* Individual experiences may vary.

Hanwa Singapore Private Limited