Roles in law: In-house Counsel
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
A big thank you to Alan Chan, General Counsel and Company Secretary, for taking the time to share some of his experiences and advice.
Alan studied law at the University of Manchester and has gone on to train and work as a corporate solicitor, a Non-Executive of his local hospital trust and in-house. Alan has worked in both the UK and Hong Kong as a corporate solicitor. He has travelled, and continues to travel, internationally whilst working for firms and in-house. Alan currently works in-house at a Business Processing Outsourcer.
Alan, could you give us a little background information on your route into corporate practice and how you came to be an in-house General Counsel?
I first encountered corporate law when I was a trainee at Rollits, a small law firm based in Hull, where I was involved in a big transaction for Cranswick plc. Rather than detesting the late nights and unpredictability of transactions, I enjoyed the buzz of completion and the camaraderie that took place in the deals. I later qualified at Pinsent Masons and that provided an even steeper learning curve into leading complex corporate deals with a requirement to understand and advise on all other areas of law. This was quite stressful and is not for everyone, but I found it very enjoyable and ultimately rewarding.
Dealing with a wide variety of organisations and their boards enabled me to develop a strong interest in the operations of businesses and the strategies behind their success, which was beyond the strict role of being a technical legal advisor. So, to satisfy the desire to be more directly involved in business decisions, I decided to move in-house. In-house gave me opportunities I would never have had in private practice and now I am the GC and Co Sec at Parseq as well as GC for its investment firm which owns a portfolio of different businesses.
What kind of things do you do in your role as General Counsel and Company-Secretary?
My role is quite varied and, stereotypically, it is a “whatever crosses your desk” mentality in terms of legal work. However, as most senior in-house lawyers will tell you, a large appeal of working in-house is the more interesting requirement to be strategic and be involved in decision making which is not always based upon legal advice. For me, it is about maximising the success of the businesses that I advise and always having an eye on the commercial implications of any advice or decision. This has much more relevance when you are part of that organisation than simply a third-party advisor.
How does working in-house compare to working in a firm?
It really depends on where you work in private practice and in-house. Pinsent Masons is an international law firm so naturally work can have international angles to it, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Similarly, my in-house roles have also included a lot of international focus, so have allowed me to retain an interest and ongoing involvement in overseas work and travel.
One big difference is the teams. In a private practice environment, I was surrounded by like-minded professionals – all lawyers or clients who were senior business people. This generally means that there is a common understanding of technical language as well as a general professionalism. In an in-house environment, this is totally different as you cannot assume that people understand the same level of detail or technicality. To be clear, this is not owing to a lack of intelligence but a lack of exposure, so there is just a need to approach matters in different ways and to cater to the varied audience.
I know you’ve spent some time abroad both in-house and whilst working at a firm, would you be able to outline a little about how corporate culture differs and how international/transferable corporate work has been in your experience?
I have been very lucky to have experienced a wide variety of work overseas, which I love, and there is a clear difference in the way different countries work. Naturally, this is driven by the culture of the country. I think dealing with different territories in a legal setting is no different from a social setting, in that you just need to be mindful of the cultural differences and be prepared to be surprised by how different countries operate. It is a real eye opener. For example, I’m currently doing a deal in Dubai and the level of bureaucracy is a lot higher compared to equivalent legal steps in the UK. This is part of what makes the international work more interesting.
What have you found to be the most important skills for you working in-house and in a firm? Additionally, what skills do you find most necessary and attractive in students/trainees?
It is a cliché but work ethic is one of the main qualities that I value. In my opinion, a person who is slow but hungry to learn and willing to assist is much better than someone who is quick to learn but lazy or unwilling to (I hate to use the phrase) “go the extra mile”. Aside from that, a basic level of intelligence is always a given for anyone wanting to do law, so it is always the other characteristics that make a difference, such as being personable, humble and genuine. It is rarely the case that people expect students or trainees to know extremely technical law or processes without having practiced them, so a lot of the time it is all about attitude and their breadth of character.
Having supervised students and trainees whilst in practice, what would some of your top tips be for someone:
a) Thinking about a career in corporate law?
Make sure you want to do it. It is isn’t going to be easy and despite the rewards there are also many sacrifices. Saying that, I think things have improved for corporate lawyers since my time in private practice. You should speak to someone you trust who is working in that position or has done it in the past and they can provide a truthful view of life as a corporate lawyer. Ask them if they had their time again if they would choose the same path and why/why not. Clearly, if you can also get any work experience in a corporate law firm that will always help.
b) Thinking they may be interested in working in-house?
I would recommend that people spend time in private practice before moving to an in-house role. I personally think that you need a good grounding in practicing the law in a law firm, building up knowledge and skills before venturing in-house. I would also recommend that anyone interested in going in-house should carefully consider the industry that the company operates in as it may affect future moves.
c) Thinking they may want to work internationally?
Working internationally is a lot of fun and, for me, makes work more interesting. However, being involved in international work is not guaranteed even if you work in global organisations. As you cannot always choose to do international work, it is a matter of increasing your chances by working for an international firm or business and being flexible and open to the idea of broadening your knowledge outside of English law.