Reaching out to In-House Solicitors

An increasing number of Law Society members work as in-house lawyers. This phenomenon seems to be a world trend. In Hong Kong, one in four practising solicitors now works in-house.

With the increasing complexity of sector-specific compliance requirements and regulations, more corporations find it necessary to put in place an in-house legal team. While there is a growing demand for in-house lawyers in the market, practitioners also increasingly find it attractive to switch from private practice to in-house. Common incentives of going in-house include exposure to more varied and commercially engaging work, involvement in a project from start to finish rather than just advising on one aspect of it, opportunity to work closely on a day-to-day basis with a business team of diverse talent, more controllable working hours and better career prospects with more promotion opportunities within a corporate structure.

This appeal of a more predictable workflow may also be a reason for the gender disparity at the senior level in law firms. While over half of new entrants to the profession (60%) are female, a substantial proportion does not stay on in private practice, and less than a quarter of partners in law firms are female. The relatively irregular and demanding working hours in private practice may have been a discouragement for working mothers.

The Law Society has put in much effort to serve the needs of this sizeable sector comprising 25% of our practising members. The Law Society’s Practice Direction N sets out in detail the requirements that apply specifically to in-house solicitors. Our Regulation and Guidance Section is available to assist on any queries relating to the application of the Practice Direction. Further, a set of frequently asked questions about the practice of in-house solicitors are posted on the Law Society website.

The number of elected Council members who are in-house solicitors has also increased to 20% (four out of 20). Since 2011, a dedicated Law Society committee, the In-House Lawyers Committee (‘IHLC’), has been set up to provide a platform for in-house lawyers to share experiences and insights on their work and to strengthen their communication with fellow members in private practice.

The activities organised by IHLC include regular panel discussions under its well known “Sweat and Glory Sessions” and visits to the legal departments of corporations throughout the year. In addition, its annual In-House Lawyers’ Conference on topical issues for in-house practitioners attracts hundreds of participants.

The scope and nature of the work of in-house lawyers is evolving rapidly. In-house lawyers are expected to know their industry well, not only to draft and negotiate business agreements and legal documentation, but also to help drive the business by anticipating and resolving legal obstacles or predicting changes to the regulatory framework to ensure a smooth launch for new products. The Financial Times recently awarded the in-house legal team at PayPal as Innovative Lawyers 2017 for playing a leading role in the development, strategy and marketing of new products at the payments company. Commercial acumen, customer focus and ability to engage with strategy are skills as important as “black letter” law capabilities.

In-house lawyers are legal service providers for their employers as well as legal service users. They are expected to achieve “more for less” for their corporations by efficiently managing the legal work and assessing what work is to be insourced or outsourced. Keeping abreast with changes in the legal service market and the way legal services are delivered is thus a must for in-house lawyers.

The advent of technology plays a crucial role in the evolution of legal service delivery. To maintain their competitiveness, law firms are increasingly using technological tools to enhance service quality, consistency and efficiency. Tools to automate document review to save cost and shared platforms to allow access to case updates at all times are ways to provide value added services to clients.

In-house lawyers who are technologically savvy will have the advantage of being able to contribute knowledgeably to the innovative use of legal technology by their in-house teams as well as external legal service providers to support business priorities.

Developing a broad worldview coupled with deep industry knowledge and all round soft skills on management and technology are essential. The training needs of in-house solicitors are thus different from those in private practice. The Law Society is keen to provide relevant support to our in-house solicitor members. Your views are most welcome and please send them to president@hklawsoc.org.hk 

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President, The Law Society of Hong Kong