How to keep a move in-house in China as your back up plan
It is true that being an in-house counsel may be a career option for lawyers who are not looking for partnership or not able to make it. However, many lawyers cannot or do not want to make the move in-house during the earlier part of their career and worry that this might rule them out from a move in the future. In this article Li Ji outlines how a lawyer, or even a compliance professional in an accountancy practice, can ensure that they maintain their potential for a move later in their career.
Many mid-level lawyers (with 5- 8 years’ PQE) will not consider a move in-house because they are largely happy in a law firm, they are happy to maintain their current workload and pressure. It therefore does not make sense for these lawyers to move in-house simply because they believe this to be the best time. Given the compensation at the same level in-house, junior and middle level associates’ compensation is relatively competitive (although the hourly rate might be low) there is not much of a financial draw either way. Therefore, many lawyers are not willing to move in-house unless they are failing to make partner within their first 10 years’ private practice experience.
There are lawyers in private practice, who are persistent on the partnership track even though the future is not certain. It is important to remember that even for these lawyers it is not too late to move in-house and keeping the move in mind could prove to be a good backup plan for lawyers not able to reach partnership or set up on their own.
If you are considering staying in private practice there are a number of things you can do to boost your experience should you want to make a move in the future:
- Learn about your clients, their business and operations as much as you can.
The legal culture of multinational companies (MNCs) is quite different now from that of 15 or 20 years ago. In the old days, most MNCs did not have in-house counse,l and external lawyers provided the legal support. Now, most MNCs have their own internal legal team/counsels, giving external lawyers less opportunity to learn about the business, its daily operations or development strategies. Most in-house counsel do the housekeeping work and outsource legal work which does not need much business background, for example litigation, M&A, legal research of new regulations and compliance.
If as an external legal provider you can learn more about the business this will help you in the future. For example, when helping healthcare companies recruiting in-house counsels, some lawyers claim that they know the healthcare industry because they have provided legal services to healthcare companies. However, in practice they may really only have knowledge regarding drug/medical device registration, import permits, custom pricing and investigation rather than all the key matters of the industry.
Therefore, try to gain more access and understanding of the company’s business and operations when involved in any legal research or M&A transaction.
- Look for secondment opportunities
If possible, try to gain secondment experience, which is usually available to mid-level and senior associates in private practice. If your firm can send you to one of their clients for a while, this will allow you to get closer to your client and obtain the experience of being an in-house counsel. Usually 6 months to 1 year secondment experience is a plus if you want to move to an in-house role in the future.
- Stay close to clients
Although it is often difficult for counsels/partners to move to MNCs as a legal head, it is not absolutely impossible. In some cases, a counsel/partner who is directly taking care of all legal matters for one client in China will usually have a good relationship with local management as well as any in-house counsel at the company’s headquarters. In these instances, if you can maintain a good relationship during your service it will stand you in good stead in the future if they are looking for a local legal head.
It's important for lawyers to know that a move in-house is not only something that you should consider earlier in your career. Businesses will value expertise gained at a law firm in the longer term and opportunities do arise to move at the more senior level. However, it is also important to always keep in mind the kind of experience that will stand you in good stead and help to differentiate yourself further down the line should you want to make the move.
For more information on the current in-house market or if you are considering making a move please contact Shawn Chen on +86 21 6103 7331 or via email [email protected].