Long hours, ever-more demanding clients and an intense focus on partner performance mean the challenges of working in private practice and the resulting toll on lawyers’ wellbeing are only on the increase.
But while many law firms are attempting to foster a more open dialogue about the impact work-related stress can have on the mental and physical health of their staff, the in-house legal community has not always had the same level of scrutiny.
Free from the pressure of billable hours targets, 24/7 client demands and ruthlessly managed remuneration structures, a career in-house is often still seen as an easier option.
Indeed, making the switch from private practice to in-house has never been more popular. And why not? Combine all of the perceived advantages above with the lure of increasingly sophisticated in-house legal teams – with some financial institutions now having more lawyers than many law firms – and the appeal is obvious.
The problem being, of course, that the flipside of the growing prestige of an in-house career is that life for those doing it can be every bit as stressful as for those working in private practice – particularly for those at or near the top.
Corporate counsel may have had to fight long and hard for a seat at the top table and the ear of the CEO, but a rising regulation burden means that in many instances they now have it. And, as with anything, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.
For this reason, The Legal 500/Legal Business’s Enterprise GC event – held in West London’s Syon Park this May – set out to debunk the myth that in-house law is an easy career option.
In a session titled ‘A Quality of Life Crisis’, WeWork European GC Sarah Nelson Smith, Ardonagh chief counsel Frances Coats and Alana Tart, a former Latham & Watkins litigator turned group commercial counsel at global information company Ascential, joined Nick Bloy,a former employment lawyer who founded Wellbeing Republic on a panel aimed at setting the record straight on the reality of working in-house.
“The flipside of the growing prestige of an in-house career is that life for those doing it can be every bit as stressful as for those working in private practice”
All three of the practising lawyers initially worked at leading law firms before making the move in-house. And all three admitted that their roles in-house could be every bit as stressful as their previous life on the other side, even if the type of pressure may be different.
Nelson Smith in particular last year found herself in the eye of the storm in her former post as European chief legal officer at KFC, when a high-profile distribution crisis forced the chain to temporarily close a number of restaurants due to a shortage of chicken.
But even without something like this or a Rolls-Royce/Tesco style investigatory scandal, the day-to-day pressure on costs, managing teams, and the expectations of service delivery from the rest of the company are very real. And, depending on the size of the team, those working in-house may not always have the same support network available to them as those in private practice.
That’s obviously not to say that people should shy away from working in-house due to the pressure – they just need to go into it with their eyes open. As the panellists pointed out, on a personal level it means establishing the coping mechanisms for dealing with stress that work for you, whether that is tracking what makes you stressed and thinking about how you can better respond in those situations, exercise or some other hobby, or asking for support (and being open to giving it to others in your team).
And for companies, it means acknowledging the pressure that these roles can bring and making sure that they are doing all the things expected of any employer – including law firms – to help staff. That means open conversations about mental health, building resilience to help employees better cope with stress before it becomes a problem, and putting in place the support systems necessary to help identify and help those in crisis.
"The day-to-day pressure on costs, managing teams, and the expectations of service delivery from the rest of the company are very real"
Nelson Smith used the experience to her advantage, writing a book entitled You Didn’t Mention The Piranhas, which looks at how to navigate through and emerge stronger from a crisis, offering advice on how to juggle the competing demands of work and life.
The session was just one part of a two-day event bringing together a host of leading in-house lawyers to discuss topics ranging from technology, corporate crises and how to deal with them, diversity, legal operations and overhauling a legal function, through to the future of the profession. Speakers included Dame Helen Morrissey, Rolls-Royce’s Mark Gregory, Stephanie Hamon from Barclays, Facebook’s Caroline Kenny, Emily Foges from Luminance, Anglo American’s Richard Price, and DLA Piper’s Simon Levine.