Are in-house lawyers really different from their private practice counterparts?
It’s a question that we’ve asked over the years as we’ve charted the different roles lawyers working in-house have taken on, even as lawyering for Big Law seems to stay pretty much the same. In fact, sometimes the line between lawyer and business leader seems to blur.
We chatted recently about this and other topics with Jose Gonzalez, the North American chief legal officer for QBE Insurance, the largest global insurer in Australia. Gonzalez is a thoughtful, globe-trotting CLO who heads a legal department of 27 lawyers based in New York. For starters, Gonzalez gave us his take on the recent trend of placing the compliance function outside the legal department — he thinks it’s really a legal function, but he runs his compliance function as though it were a separate entity.
Gonzalez also talked about the outside law firm/in-house department dynamic. After the Great Recession, power seemed to shift in-house, but some think it’s shifted back to firms once the cost-cutting pressure eased. “It’s still seems like the center of activity has moved permanently to the in-house side of the practice,” Gonzalez says. “If you have a big department, you probably have all the expertise you need; but even then, we need to work with outside counsel. It’s a matter of finding what’s the most effective and cost-efficient place to put the work, inside or outside.”
We also talked about the kinds of talent Gonzalez says he’s looking for, and what he does to support the careers of his lawyers, both at QBE and sometimes, elsewhere.
What kind of lawyer does Gonzalez need? He says he looks for people who are good lawyers, naturally. But he’s also looking for good communicators, because in-house lawyers need to explain what they do, and the decisions they make, to their non-lawyer colleagues. How does that differ from private practice? “With outside counsel, it’s a counsel-to-counsel relationship, so the substantive piece is more important,” he explains. “We serve as the go-between with the business and outside counsel.”
In-house lawyers sometimes complain about their career paths — legal departments tend to have pyramidal structures leading to the general counsel or chief legal officer post, while law firms, with their associate-to-partner track are often seen as flatter. What kind of advice does Gonzalez give to prospective hires on that score? “Structures are what they are,” he says. “Your career is for you to take charge of.” He says that he expects his lawyers to come up with different tasks and ways to grow in their careers themselves. At the same time, he notes “it’s incumbent for GCs to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable coming up with ideas, to think, ‘Hey, can I do this?’”
Gonzalez, in fact, is proud of seeing his younger charges grow and change what they do on the job. “We had an opening here recently and we were thinking of this person and that — then someone else asked to step into it,” Gonzalez says. “We weren’t even thinking of him, but realized he’d be perfect.”
That support doesn’t mean he wants people to stay in his department, however nonlinear their career path may be with him and his colleagues. “In some legal departments, there’s a sense that that’s disloyal,” he says. “But that’s not how we work. We’re here to empower people. We try to make it so they stay, but if there’s a better fit for them elsewhere, we don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Besides, having friendly ex-colleagues elsewhere isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps Gonzalez is thinking of legal departments like General Electric, whose in-house lawyers seem to land in the corporate legal departments of companies worldwide, forming a sort of international GE Legal Alumni Association.
“Who knows? Maybe they’ll come back,” Gonzalez says, adding that in any event, he tries to give his people “a safe space, to tell them the truth.”