Going in-house: Look before you leap
Is the grass truly greener on the other side?
The General Counsel: Martha Binks, GC, Assistant Corporate Secretary and Director of Legal Services at Allstate Insurance Company of Canada, Markham, Ont., for the past 14 years.
The lawyer: We’ll call him Gilbert. A Toronto lawyer, he’s thinking of making the switch from private practitioner to corporate counsel and for now he’d like to keep that under wraps.
Sitting down to lunch at Figo in Toronto’s Entertainment District, Martha Binks orders from the Italian-inspired menu then dives directly into the biggest issue for many exhausted private practitioners: work/life balance.
A law firm partner with three young children when she went to Allstate, she says work/life balance was the main driver in deciding to go in-house. “I was getting really tired,” she says.
Still, when she’s litigating a case and heading for trial, she emphasizes that the hours pile up. “You’re doing everything.
You wake up in the middle of the night, you’re thinking about the trial. Your family – ignore them. Nothing gets any attention. And that doesn’t matter if you’re in private practice or working in an in-house environment.” Sometimes, she adds, “you just have to work all the time.” Otherwise, it’s usually a solid 45- to 50-hour work week.
She lets potential legal hires know that there’s room for some flexibility. “But flexibility doesn’t mean that because you want to see your son’s playoff soccer game on Friday afternoon that you’ve got Friday afternoon off.” That time still has to be made up, likely over the weekend.
On the plus side, Binks does less administrative work now. Without the hours spent docketing, billing and doing client development, there’s more time to simply focus on practising law. Nurturing client relationships can be very time-consuming and while “you quickly develop a pretty close working relationship” with your in-house clients, you don’t need to spend time taking them out to lunch, she says.
Gilbert believes that he would likely be able to provide better legal services in-house since he would have more in-depth knowledge of his client – and a clearly defined corporate strategy. Binks heartily agrees: “You’re always aligned with your client. Their best interests are always at the core of everything. And the better you know your client, the better advice you can give them.” As the company’s strategies are being developed, “you’re so much better placed to give that advice because you understand the company’s overall workings.”
In terms of the company’s litigation, Binks adds: “we want to be the lawyers of choice. We want to do it better, more efficiently and faster and you’ve got to work hard to get the confidence of your clients. You’re only as good as your last mediation, your last discovery, your last trial.”
Gilbert points out that every company has a different dynamic with its legal department. “Some businesses really see their legal department as a roadblock to get through that stops sales, which slows down production and productiveness,” he says.
Binks agrees that some people see the in-house legal team as the “department of no” but she tries to adopt more of a “there-are-no-problems-only-opportunities” approach. For example, when regulations restrict how the company can operate, that gives her team a chance to consider doing things a different way, which can sometimes lead to an even better way of operating.
As lunch wraps up with cappuccinos, Binks advises lawyers to do as much research as possible on a company before making such a career-changing move.
“Talk to the people who work there. Ask what they like about it and ask what they don’t like about it and really push to find out the culture because cultures are very company-specific.”