Three things I wish I had known

Three things I wish I had known

Ellen Liondis notes a few things that wold have made becoming an in-house lawyer a bit easier.


Six years of law school taught me where to find the law and how to apply it to solve problems.

10 years in private practice taught me to ask probing questions and gave me the discipline for drafting bullet-proof legal documents and advice. It also taught me the importance of client service and business development.

So when I started out as an in-house lawyer 15 years ago, I thought I knew everything.

It took many years and becoming chief counsel, where I was responsible for nurturing and mentoring young lawyers, to realise the mistakes I made in the early years.

Here are the top three things I wish I had known when I started in the house.

1. Doing the same thing will not get you different results

I started off being eager to please and make a mark for myself. I built relationships, got the desired outcomes for my internal clients with a quick turnaround time and was soon inundated with more work than I could poke a stick at.

I found myself working harder than before. I had left private practice looking for a better work/life balance but later I was actually treading water – reacting and fighting fires instead of stepping back and looking at things strategically. Once I took the time and courage to do that, things improved and the promotions came.


2. You are not just a lawyer – you are also a moral compass

I came from a large firm where clients wanted someone who would find a path through the law to provide the outcome they were looking for.

In an in-house environment, your business contacts also love you for finding a legal solution to their issues, but the board won’t unless you look at the bigger picture and consider what could go wrong – not just legally but also commercially or reputation wise – and build risk-mitigation into solutions.

I initially made the mistake of always going the extra mile to find creative legal solutions for my internal business contacts without applying a broader risk overlay. And I learned that giving the business contacts what they needed to meet their own KPI’s was not always in the interest of the organisation. Applying a broader lens will earn you the trust and respect of the CEO and the board.


3. Your work should align with organisational strategy and risk

In-house lawyers thrive on intellectually stimulating matters and will happily jump into interesting work that comes in the door; some will pause on an all-important transaction to do a favour for a business colleague.

This is fine as long as:

you have capacity to do that work

it is not outside the firm's risk appetite

it isn’t at the expense of work that that will deliver execution against the organisation’s strategic plan.


So if you can’t articulate the strategic goals and the risk appetite of your organisation, make sure you find out what they are. If you are in a greenfields role and you find these things don’t exist, it could be a great opportunity to put something in place.


About the Author

Ellen Liondis is Chief Legal counsel and Company Secretary, Pacific, at Mercer


4 December 2017



4 December 2017