James Hulsken – Legal Counsel, De Poel

Tell us about your career in private practice before making the move in-house?

I trained with a general corporate commercial firm in the South East before qualifying into the Corporate department in September 2008.  My first role was as a generalist, with work varying from big ticket M&A work right through to drafting simple commercial documents.

I moved into a more senior role in September 2010, where I specialised in commercial work, assisting clients in all aspects of commercial work ranging from advising on agreements in isolation, right up to taking a leading role in bringing a new company and product to market, including everything from incorporating the company up to agreeing manufacturing contracts and agency agreements for distributing agents.

Why did you decide to move in-house?

I was finding private practice to be quite limiting, and I’d decided quite early on in my career that I didn’t see myself as a partner in a law firm.  I enjoy being a lawyer, and although advising a client on a specific document or commercial issue was great, there was a certain frustration in not being able to see how things panned out for the client in the long-term.  Having said that though, that’s what you should expect if you do your job right!  I also wanted to experience more in my daily working life than simply the law, and in-house would allow me to become involved commercially as well as legally.

When do you think is the optimum stage in a lawyer’s career to make the move in-house?

I think it would depend on both the individual and the role in question.

To work in-house, first and foremost you need to have a good grounding in your chosen area of law, and I would think anyone below the 2-3 year PQE level may not have been able to gain this yet.  Having said that, someone in a smaller firm who has been closely involved with clients and given a good deal of autonomy from day one may well have that grounding at an earlier stage in their career.

You should also consider the role on offer.  If the role is as part of a larger team, then PQE is less of an issue than if the job is for an autonomous role.  In the latter case, you would need to have good experience in private practice, and be confident in your ability, before considering such a role.

What is your role?

I assist the Legal Director on all legal matters to do with the company.  Primarily, my role leans towards dealing with the mainly blue chip clients of the company, negotiating and drafting our legal documents to facilitate what we do as a business.  I also have an advisory aspect to my role where I deal with queries from colleagues on legal and compliance matters, as well as advising clients on their compliance with applicable legislation.

We in the legal department also try to ensure that we are proactive in keeping clients, colleagues and the wider business world up to date with matters of general legal interest in the business areas in which we operate.  This can take the shape of blogs, weekly “how to” emails and external seminars..

Is being an in house lawyer different to how you thought it would be?

It’s far more commercial than private practice, where the advice given to clients is generally legally-focused.  In-house you need to be more pragmatic and commercially minded, as the decision makers in the business want to be told what they can do, they want to be presented with ideas and solutions, not legal road blocks.

How would you define the role of an in house lawyer?

Again, it would depend upon the role in question.  Big companies may well have teams of lawyers that operate in strict departments, so the role in such a case may not be much different to private practice.  However, I would say that in general the role of an in-house lawyer is more than just providing legal advice.  There is a commercial and business side to it that younger lawyers in private practice will not experience, and this should be taken into account when deciding whether in-house is for you.

What are you enjoying most about being in-house?

The variety!  The core of my role is similar to private practice, in terms of drafting and negotiating client documentation.  However, the role is far broader than that, and no two days are the same.

What characteristics make for a good in house lawyer?

You need to be able to get stuck in.  Unlike private practice, when in-house you rarely have the option of going to someone else for answers.  If a query about an unfamiliar area of law crosses my desk, it is up to me find the answer, rather than simply asking a specialist in another department to respond to the query.  You also need to be confident in your ability, as explaining why something can’t be done to senior members of the board can be very hard if you don’t trust yourself and back your abilities.

What advice would you give to a lawyer in private practice who is considering making the move in-house?

I can’t recommend in-house enough.  But the best piece of advice is to really think about what type of company you want to work for, and what you want to get out of the role.  Each company and each role will require different skills and will teach you different skills too.  If it’s your first move in-house, consider taking a more general role where you can fully experience the company and really gain some general commercial skills and business knowledge.

I’d also say that if you’re a lawyer who enjoys sitting behind a desk all day drafting documents, then in-house may not be the place for you.