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The Singapore Law Gazette

The Junior Counsel Survival Guide

So, you’ve heard a great deal about the possibility of an in-house legal career as a viable (and fun) alternative to being in private practice – it’s all true. This article outlines several positive aspects (and a few not-so-good pitfalls to avoid) of being a junior in-house lawyer that are rewarding and make for a personally enriching experience.

Partnering the Business

Within your company, you will almost always have a seat at the table where complex, fast-moving business decisions are made. This valuable exposure helps hone your business acumen and knowledge of what matters within the specific industry in which your employer operates. Your close proximity to the decision-making table will mean you will often be able to contribute ideas or weigh in on important issues – and, in my experience, your commercial colleagues will often be very receptive to having a fresh legal perspective support their considerations.

While it can certainly be very daunting to be the youngest (and sometimes the only) lawyer in the room, it’s worth remembering that you’re there because you are valued as part of the process and not because you are expected to have the answers to every possible question that could be raised at meetings.

Also, do not assume that just because no one has raised a point which appears to be very obvious to you that this means that it has been addressed – it could just be the case that no one else in the room has thought about it, so “showing up” and “speaking up” are big parts of the job.

Making Things Happen FAST! (Yes, it’s a Good Thing.)

Things can move fast. Really fast. Sometimes your business colleagues will come to you very late in the day (literally, close to the COB or even after office hours) with very urgent matters. You may have already mentally readied yourself for a fantastic “wind-down” dinner with friends when you see an urgent e-mail coming in. This is generally rare but it can happen from time to time. Whilst this can be slightly annoying, it is also (for me at least) hugely exhilarating.

Here’s why: this won’t be like one of your usual matters. The added urgency will mean that longer, more in-depth discussions involving higher levels of management have happened and at an accelerated pace. Everything about it will allow you to learn how decisive action is taken and where you come into the picture. It is also a fantastic opportunity for you to learn about the greater landscape or the complication to which the action seeks to address. The same principle in relation to muscle memory applies – you’ll be able to flex a similar response if you ever recognise similarities or like issues arising from a time-pressed context in future matters. So, really, it’s a great opportunity to level up on your problem-solving skills. Exhilarating!

The same rules also apply: make sure you know what is happening and ask lots of questions if there is any doubt in your mind about the way something has been explained to you. There may be times that your colleagues are grappling with a huge amount of information and have missed how one aspect is going to be important within the scheme of things. If there is drafting involved, make sure the whole document comes together in a complete way – any gaps or questions you may have (even if obvious) should still be raised with your stakeholders.

Working with (and Learning from) Senior Lawyers

Depending on the size and operating complexity of your organisation, it may be the case that you form part of a much larger team of in-house lawyers. If you are lucky, there will be lawyers with subject matter specialisation in your organisation – for example, in personal data protection, intellectual property law, competition law, or trade law – with whom you can work closely. This access helps you develop a more robust understanding of the substantive rules and considerations that apply in these specific areas.

If you are part of a smaller legal team, fret not. In the course of your work, your seniors and bosses will recognise that you are still learning – and that many aspects of specific tasks will bring certain challenges. That said, you should not underestimate your own ability to be resourceful even if the guidance of your seniors is available. A lot of what you do as junior counsel will shape the way you approach issues – particularly novel ones – as you progress in your career. The good thing is that it is very unlikely that you will come across a purely novel legal question that no one else has considered before. This all means that you won’t have to look very far to find the answer (or breadcrumbs leading to the answer) to the question you find momentarily daunting. So, hang in there and dig deep!

Also, don’t feel bad about asking a more experienced lawyer in private practice if (s)he might be willing to jump on a quick call to discuss a tricky issue or give you quick guidance on areas outside your specialty on a “phone-a-friend” basis. Nine times out of ten – the answer will be a resounding “yes”. It’s a really great way to build a strong working relationship as junior counsel with senior private practitioners. Just be sure to turn up with good, considered questions and really enjoy the process.

Some Possibly Terrible Things (and How to Avoid Them)

If you are planning on making the move in-house early on in your career, it’s important to trust your instincts during the recruitment process (if something feels problematic, ask more questions), and make sure you have done all your research before you decide to take on a role. Research as much as you can about the company, the team you will be working with, the key focus and priorities of its main businesses, and ask around about the short-term plans of the company.

The last thing you will want to encounter as a young lawyer still trying to find firm footing is having to deal with unexpected surprises that were not communicated to you during the recruitment process. For example, you might suddenly be made to take on corporate secretarial responsibilities on a full-time basis only after you have come on board (and without having been consulted at all), or be given an expanded full-time portfolio covering many new offices in other regions without notice. Or left in the unenviable position of joining a new company and finding out the senior lawyer who interviewed you has left (and will not be replaced). Being new to a company at a junior level can make it feel like you don’t have many options.

In extreme circumstances, a young junior counsel may find himself without the guidance (s)he crucially needs in a new industry or role. None of this would be what you signed up for, so research rigorously and ensure that your expectations are clearly communicated during the recruitment process.

Regrettably, though uncommon, there are stories of junior counsel having freshly joined a new company and been left in such circumstances. It can be very distressing – so, reach out and speak to seniors within the industry if you ever find yourself in such a position.

The Secret Sauce

So, what’s the secret sauce?

That depends on what the dish du jour is – in this case, being a good junior counsel is fundamentally about two things: first, be an enabler of commercial outcomes, processes, and goals; and second, ensure that you safeguard and address any legal risks in the process of these commercial activities taking place. Both are essential and it is crucial to be able to balance both.

What helps is to have (and if you got it, flash it often!) a genuine curiosity and interest in what your business colleagues are wanting to do (what keeps them up at night behind the business talk, whether in relation to the “big picture” or just in relation to this specific project)? You’ll know you’ve had a breakthrough when the jargon becomes largely reduced and you are able to speak in very simple terms with your colleagues about how the mechanics work or what the outcome is going to look like. And if you are not getting there yet – turn down the legal-speak and ask questions simply and in a conversational way.

One of the best aspects of the role is that you will get to work with a lot of people, of all levels of seniority. It really humanises your perspective – and most of the time, you’re working on the same side as your colleagues trying to make a commercial objective come to fruition. People are the greatest part of the equation for an in-house lawyer – and that requires you to bring your personality to work. It’s a worthy effort to make it an enjoyable experience for everybody involved.

You Won’t be Junior Forever (and Neither were Your Mentors!)

On a final note, there will be other lessons you will learn along the way as junior counsel. Every lesson – big or small – will be something you take with you in shaping your later years. Connect actively and meaningfully with everyone you meet along the way, and remember that what worked for somebody else may not work for you – develop your own secret sauce.

In my own experience, there have been many, many senior in-house lawyers who have shown a real interest and willingness to make themselves available to young and junior counsel (and to share their own lessons). Pay it forward when you’re no longer a junior yourself, and remember – the future of the legal community should be one fuelled by kindness and mutual support.

If you ever see me at an event, feel free to say hello and tell me how things are going for you (or if this article helped you make your decision to take on an in-house role at a junior level)!

All the best – and here’s wishing you every success on what will be an (amazing) adventure ahead.

Corporate Counsel
Rio Tinto