OPINION | Going In-house: A Changing Marketplace

Author: Kenneth Tung

Based on the article, Going In-house: A Changing Marketplace, first published in Legal Business World – 2020 here. b30d31_5dd2ade9502c4903bcdf1ed4f71ca0bb.pdf (filesusr.com)

SSQ’s expert APAC Senior Adviser Kenneth Tung explores this topic in the first of a series of articles.

“These are the times that try men’s soul.” – Thomas Paine, The Crisis, Dec. 23, 1776

Serving as a panelist in an international law firm’s leadership program turned the author’s mind to some thoughts on what lawyers need to ponder when going in-house in this time of pandemic and destabilization of more than half a century of nuclear geopolitical balance.

In 1997, the author was part of an early wave of lawyers moving from law firms into corporate legal departments in mainly western multinationals in China.  Since then, the market has evolved and grown more vibrant and we have seen the rise of Chinese state owned and private enterprises as well as businesses and industries at varying stages of development, many of whom are now competitive global enterprises in their own right.

Common considerations for going in-house are in essence not that different from those applicable to any job move – people are driven by their head, their heart, and of course the dough – or to put it a different way, what one is good at doing, what one loves to do and what pays (either to maintain a lifestyle or to scale one’s ambitions).


These considerations include:

· The timing of moving in-house – relative to the stage of career such as making partnership in law firms, the trajectory of pay after going in-house, and skills acquired before the move;

· What the individual is looking for – whether this be “work-life balance,” a differently structured work environment, steady compensation and benefits, freedom from pressures to bill and to pitch, fitting more into a client’s business and purpose, hitching a ride with disruptive players (which are rare), or enhancing personal branding with a corporate brand’s halo effect;

· What employers may look for – for instance this may be a go-to person for legal problems, a contract manager, particular expertise, a facilitator of transactions, a risk manager to hold the line on compliance, a “counselor;”

· Whether one possesses or can acquire the skillset that helps to succeed in-house – “soft” or “people” skills such as communicating effectively with non-lawyers, commercial sense and acumen, a willingness to come out from behind the desk to appreciate disparate stakeholders’ perspectives across silos and the business ecosystem, ability to facilitate operations and perhaps even contribute to strategies;

· Propensity to overcome the challenges in such transitions – going from the straightforward practice of law (spotting issues and highlighting legal risks) to solving problems and facilitating transactions and processes, moving from input based mindset (hours worked) to the very different one of driving throughput or even output, marshaling the facts and building pipelines to produce hard data, managing and building a bench of legal talent that delivers the results required;

· What to do if going in-house legal is not a suitable fit – the feasibility of moving back to a law firm, going into business or some other function, or joining an investment or consulting firm.


In addition to these criteria, both the lawyer contemplating a move in-house and any organization recruiting legal professionals and building its legal department should take into consideration how the legal sector is evolving.  This may be at a slower pace than some other industries and professions, but many key first steps have been taken in a journey of transformation.

Popular legal media has for some time been covering the notable rise in both status and power of in-house lawyers [1] and the move of talented lawyers to in-house roles [2]. This reflects the significant shift of bargaining power we are seeing from suppliers (the most commented on being “Big Law”) to buyers of legal services and a client revolt that is putting private practice lawyers on their collective back foot. Law firms are having to rethink how they do business and it is in-house lawyers who are driving that. It is a very exciting time for GCs and their teams.



[1] Rise of the In-house Lawyers, Subscribe to read | Financial Times (ft.com) R. SenGupta, Financial Times, Mar. 17, 2010.

[2] Why are so many talented lawyers moving in-house?, https://www.raconteur.net/risk-management/in-house-lawyers-corporate C. Baski, Reconteur, Nov. 27, 2018.

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