Breaking down barriers to entry in-house

Sophie CameronThursday 23 November 2023

Factors such as financial barriers, gender, social class and more have an impact on the ability of individuals to enter and progress in the legal profession. In-House Perspective assesses these barriers specifically in relation to in-house teams – and what’s being done to break them down.

In the past decade, the number of in-house lawyers has increased dramatically, while working practices within companies’ legal divisions have become more sophisticated. This has partly been driven by the need to reduce costs and increase efficiency, which has led to more companies hiring their own team of lawyers rather than going to outside counsel, as well as a greater appreciation of the importance of legal expertise and its application within a specific business context.

‘In the US, there are no regulations that govern who can apply for in-house positions, so finding and landing such a position usually depends on market forces and supply and demand,’ explains Mark Hsu, Outreach and Education Officer on the IBA Young Lawyers’ Committee and a partner at Hawkins Parnell & Young, in New York.

Entry levels

A common barrier to entry in-house is that, globally, the more senior positions at companies require experience at a larger private practice law firm. Traditionally, most law graduates secure a role in private practice and legal qualifications are directed towards graduates entering the legal sector in these roles. Junior lawyers are likely to work for a law firm for at least five years, before a few enter in-house positions.

Mari Cruz Taboada, Head of Client Management and Legal Innovation at Lexington Consultants in Madrid, says that ‘many prominent companies prefer to recruit for their senior in-house roles from top-tier law firms, valuing the candidates’ advanced technical skills, ability to deliver quality service, and their capacity to work under pressure. However, these senior positions are often filled by white, male lawyers from affluent socio-economic backgrounds, perpetuating a pattern that constitutes a barrier to entry for a diverse pool of talented individuals’.

Some companies, however, are now hiring directly from universities when building their in-house legal teams. Daniel Weintraub, Member of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee Advisory Board and Chief Administrative and Legal Officer for Audax Group in Boston, US, explains that his company is one such organisation. ‘We need to better educate lawyers about how to practice law in-house from the off, such as the ability to provide answers and speak in bullets rather than in traditional legal memo form,’ he says. 

Michael Coates, Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA Corporate and M&A Law Committee and General Counsel, Corporate and Chief Ethics & Compliance Officer at Shell, based in The Netherlands, explains that, for example, the routes into the profession in the UK are broadening thanks to new apprenticeship schemes. ‘At Shell Legal in London, we recently took on a trainee via an external provider which focuses on increasing social mobility, working with in-house teams to create new opportunities,’ says Coates. ‘We are also looking at diversifying our work experience and other outreach programmes to try to influence at an earlier stage of the pipeline – and we are not alone.’ However, he adds that ‘there can be contrasting amounts of entry-level opportunities. In-house teams may not always choose to train their newly qualified staff themselves, and therefore, may rely on seeking talent from the qualified market’.

“In-house teams may not always choose to train their newly qualified staff themselves, and therefore, may rely on seeking talent from the qualified market

Michael Coates
Senior Vice-Chair, IBA Corporate and M&A Law Committee

Private practice firms are often well-equipped to support graduates during the training process, as they usually take on a pool of graduates that embark on an established training programme, after which the best performing graduates continue with the firm. An equivalent graduate programme may not be possible within an in-house legal team. However, there have been notable changes in companies’ professional development approaches, with greater adoption of mentoring programmes.

Lawyers may also find that some degree of private practice experience is useful to them in terms of climbing the career ladder. On the flip side, private practice often pushes lawyers to become specialised in one area of law, while in-house professionals have a broader scope of legal responsibilities. Therefore, when moving in-house, a lawyer may well find their skill set expands.

James Harper, Committee Liaison Officer for the IBA Corporate Counsel Forum and Global Head of Legal for Global Nexis Solutions at LexisNexis UK, highlights the different way of thinking and working when in-house compared to private practice. ‘I spent four years in a non-legal role and saw for myself the fundamental role data played in the business’ decision making’, he says. ‘This was not something that legal tended to be as good at. As a result of that experience, I have tracked the success of our projects more closely – such as changes to contracts that led to a 70 per cent reduction in negotiating time. These sorts of initiatives both help drive efficiency but also allowed us to promote the work of the legal team in a language the business understands.’

The advantage of flexibility

Historically, in-house legal positions have been seen as providing a better work-life balance, says Taboada. This increases their appeal in particular to parents looking to combine their careers with caring responsibilities. However, ‘these positions often come with significantly lower compensation than private practice. Moreover, considering that there are significantly fewer positions as an in-house lawyer, the competition for such roles can be particularly high,’ adds Taboada. ‘It should be noted, however, that while the hours may be more flexible in-house, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the job will be less demanding given the sophistication and complexity of most in-house roles today.’

In-house lawyers don’t have the pressure of needing to bring in business that private practice lawyers do. And following the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s likely that young lawyers will now be more aware of, and perhaps looking for, a different work-life balance from the off. ‘Progressive companies that allow their employees to work remotely, while holding them accountable and maintaining their productivity and motivation, will invariably be seen as more attractive,’ says Hsu. ‘As a parent of two children who were at home for a year and a half during the pandemic, I was well aware that hybrid working is not just a luxury for the working or single parent, but a necessity.’

The pandemic accelerated hybrid working in most companies, including at Shell, explains Coates, with both prospective candidates and existing employees responding positively. ‘Those with caring responsibilities […] find that the increased flexibility in choosing a work location enhances an easier work/life balance. We do, however, also recognise that the lack of direct or frequent office-based connections can hamper the development of our important working relationships,’ he says. ‘Thus, we may need to ensure that out of sight does not mean out of mind, particularly for staff with shorter tenure who have less established networks, or for staff from under-represented groups, for whom relationships and active sponsorship can often be key.’

Harper identifies that a lack of time and people within in-house teams can make it difficult to mentor and train new joiners, who can be thrown in at the deep end. This can be made worse if teams are working remotely a significant amount of the time. He recalls his early experiences as a junior lawyer in a law firm, sharing an office with a partner from whom he cut his teeth in the industry. The risk is that hybrid working may have downsides for certain individuals, particularly graduates looking to learn from and shadow more senior colleagues.

In Taboada’s view, ‘the pandemic had a silver lining by compelling companies to create robust frameworks to support flexibility. While these shifts present challenges for some, they are predominantly received with enthusiasm by the majority’.

Dismantling unconscious biases

In many companies, entrenched barriers exist that result in inequalities in senior legal positions, often attributed to unconscious biases or traditional, male-centric promotion pathways. A survey on diversity in law firms carried out by the Solicitors Regulation Authority of England and Wales in 2021 shows a slow but steady increase in diversity among all lawyers. However, despite an increase in the proportion of women in the profession, the significant seniority gap between female partners and solicitors has narrowed only slightly.

In addition to this, the survey found an increase in the proportion of Black and Asian lawyers, but no change for lawyers from a mixed/multiple group or an Other minority ethnic background. There was an increase in the proportion of disabled lawyers, but the report found a significant under-representation of disabled lawyers compared to the jurisdiction’s overall workforce. Finally, there was a significant difference in the proportion of lawyers from a ‘privileged’ background compared to the general population, based on socio-economic background and attendance at fee-paying schools. Harper says that ‘all forms of diversity of experience can only be positive for the profession – people think differently based on their life experiences. As a result, the way someone practises law, and the insight they can bring, owes a lot to their background’.

The focus within large international businesses has shifted towards a proactive approach to legal work, including anticipating and preventing risks rather than merely remedying them. Taboada explains that ‘this shift not only seeks to streamline processes and reduce the waste of time and resources, but also creates opportunities for a broader range of professionals to enter the legal field. Nonetheless, there is a clear mandate for organisations to fervently promote and uphold diversity and equality initiatives. These efforts are essential to counteract and dismantle the pervasive unconscious biases within the industry’.

The National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) latest report on diversity in US law firms, published in January, finds that while the legal industry continues to make measurable gains in the representation of women, people of colour and LGBTQI+ individuals at the associate level, systemic barriers still exist that prevent these individuals from joining the ranks of partnership. ‘It is clear that while law firms can hire women, diverse, and LGBTQI+ associates, they struggle to keep them beyond the junior ranks and to develop them into partners,’ said Nikia L Gray, the NALP’s Executive Director.

Organisations – from law schools to companies – are implementing measures and making changes to enhance diversity. Coates explains that at Shell, ‘the firms that we recruit from are working to increase their own diversity within their talent pools. However, we still see a heavy bias in favour of certain universities and as a result of this, it could mean that students from more traditional majority backgrounds make their way into the system’. He highlights a mentoring scheme run at Shell, which matches the company’s lawyers with students or recent graduates from diverse backgrounds who are interested in a career in law.

‘What is a real asset for a large, integrated multinational company […] is the ability for our staff to work in different roles, businesses, and functions and to engage with a variety of business stakeholders as a result,’ says Coates. ‘Building strong working relationships is critical in this context, and we find that a range of lawyers, from a range of backgrounds, and those with broader backgrounds, often excel in this environment.’

In September, Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles announced the launch of the country’s first fully online juris doctor (JD) programme, accredited by the American Bar Association. The programme offers full- and part-time options with asynchronous learning and aims to expand access to legal education. It’s part of the School’s mission to democratise legal education and cultivate diversity within the legal profession.

“People will notice when a company is not making a priority of [diversity, equity and inclusion] initiatives and there usually is a reckoning

Mark Hsu
Outreach and Education Officer, IBA Young Lawyers’ Committee

In the US, companies are noticeably requiring that their outside counsel implement and demonstrate their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, and it’s likely that their in-house hirings will reflect this viewpoint as well, says Hsu. ‘People will notice when a company is not making a priority of these initiatives and there usually is a reckoning,’ he explains. ‘That being said, the challenge is having companies and law firms really believe in these initiatives and not just make gestures’ for the sake of appearances.

Todd A Solomon, Co-Chair of the IBA Global Employment Institute and a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, in Chicago, believes there’s a great focus on diversity in terms of in-house hiring and this will continue to grow as companies hone their environment, social and governance (ESG) policies and missions.

“The existence of spaces for candid dialogue is essential, as they not only encourage conversation but also lay the groundwork for meaningful change

Mari Cruz Taboada
Head of Client Management and Legal Innovation, Lexington Consultants

Focusing on gender – and age

The legal sector has also experienced a notable impact from the #MeToo movement, which has empowered women to break their silence on issues involving harassment and inequality. The result is a need to foster working environments that are conducive of open and challenging discussions. Movements aimed at addressing gender inequality are broadening their scope to highlight and tackle various forms of disparity within the legal profession. ‘The existence of spaces for candid dialogue is essential, as they not only encourage conversation but also lay the groundwork for meaningful change,’ explains Taboada. ‘The legal sector, traditionally a staunch proponent of justice and fairness, is now being encouraged to self-reflect and adapt. Consequently, we are entering a time where these pivotal discussions are leading to the creation of more inclusive and fair workplaces.’

From the Danish perspective, Karina Pöckel Arendt, Chairperson for the Danish Association of In-House Lawyers, says that ‘there are so few women partners in the profession, so there is still a way to go. Women leave law firms often because of the inability to balance a career and family commitments, with most going in-house. It is documented that mothers still attend to things at home more than men. Having children is at least for some women perceived as a barrier to a career in a big law firm’.

Pöckel Arendt explains that the major Danish law firms are concerned about gender diversity and are seeking to address it, but have not been entirely successful in keeping women onboard, in her view. ‘You cannot help thinking that maybe it is still about who is billing the most hours’, she says.

However, she highlights the implications of Denmark’s shortfall in the workforce in the past five years, which has had consequences relating to both age and gender. The shortfall has meant that companies’ view of women employees is changing, as they have ‘realised that they can’t afford to lose women and that they are losing a lot of know-how when senior people leave the profession. Female role models are also needed within the business’, explains Pöckel Arendt.

“Companies have realised that they can’t afford to lose women and that they are losing a lot of know-how when senior people leave the profession

Karina Pöckel Arendt
Chairperson, Danish Association of In-House Lawyers

She adds that organisations have introduced different career paths and models to retain members of the workforce, particularly women. ‘The measures are having an impact,’ says Pöckel Arendt. ‘However, there will likely be no gender parity in regard to partners in law firms within my lifetime.’

Denmark has recently passed amendments to its Anti-Discrimination Act to prohibit employers from screening job applicants based on their age. From 1 July 2022, employers in Denmark must not require or request candidates to state their age in a job application or through a recruitment system. This prohibition against age discrimination was enacted into Danish law as a result of the implementation of EU Council Directive 2000/78/EC, which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation. ‘Keeping people employed for longer will help with the workforce shortfall,’ says Pöckel Arendt. ‘Age is the next issue coming down the track.’

Looking forward, Taboada predicts a further shift in the profession. ‘Forces such as cost constraints, regulatory burdens, and the drive for innovation to improve operational efficiency are altering the traditional in-house legal service delivery,’ she says. What this means in practice is that the current trend towards optimising routine legal tasks to enable the senior legal team to concentrate on higher-value work is paving the way for lawyers with a broader array of skills and experiences from varied sectors such as technology, data analytics and engineering.

Sophie Cameron is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at sophiecameron2@googlemail.com

The IBA has published a Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit to assist law firms in their D&I endeavours. Access the Toolkit here