Beachside Chat: What In-House Counsels Want To Know

by Annie Tang in Articles

DatePosted on January 07, 2020 at 10:30 AM
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Every day, I get to meet interesting people from diverse backgrounds which is an occupational blessing! So I decided to put pen to paper for this beachside chat about recurring questions that I am regularly asked by in-house lawyers. I opted for a beachside chat since there are probably more beaches than firesides in Hong Kong!

Some of the answers could also be applicable or adapted to other professionals as well.

What is my market worth?

If you are paid less than your peers, don’t assume that the grass is greener for them. What may not be obvious, for example, is that they may be on call 24/7, have to travel constantly or have multiple fires or political dramas to extinguish or resolve so it's difficult to judge a book by its cover or compare red apples with green pears.

Pay differences could also be due to a number of factors such as your having initially worked at a local law firm vs international law firm (including US law firm), or the industry you joined (investment banks are most likely to pay higher than a retail brand) or your coverage. Or it could simply have been due to the employer having a strict budget for your role or due to team relativity (it wouldn’t be possible for you to get paid more than your direct report for example).

You may have taken a pay cut when you initially moved in-house for a better work life balance or for more predictable hours. Other factors such as the extent of your geographical coverage and your responsibilities will also impact upon your current salary.

From around 8+ PQE and upwards, salaries typically diverge for in-house lawyers due to varying factors such as different industries, geographical, managerial or other responsibilities.

In a nutshell, break free from the green eyed monster in you. Remember, YOU, and only you, create your own market worth. So don’t compare yourself to your peers or even compare with your previous salary or lament what could have been.

Don’t forget that you probably went in pursuit of happiness when you eagerly gave up the chase for law firm partnership, time sheets and business development for reasons that went well beyond money. However, if money is now the key consideration and you are confident that you can quickly build a book of business, the private practice ship may not have completely sailed and you could even consider returning to private practice.

What’s the current job market like?

The job market is largely dictated by and impacted by the economy at any given time. Even economists may find it difficult to evaluate but I have observed that during previous economic downturns such as during the SARS period (2003) and the Global financial crisis (2008), the legal market was usually one of the last professions to feel the “hit” of a downturn and any “hit” usually lasted for around 3 months or so.

Even in the current political climate (US/China trade war and Hong Kong protests), there is still a healthy demand for lawyers in both private practice and in-house.

How can I improve my marketability on paper?

A regular issue faced by some candidates is that their CVs have become 'choppy' (arising from job changes annually or biennially). Whilst you may have compelling reasons for these changes, employers usually do not take kindly to these profiles since they quickly assume (whether rightly or wrongly) that past history is an indicator of future behaviour.

Therefore, to increase your marketability, it is essential that you gain some longevity and stability with your employer and give it your all even if it’s not your ideal job of all time. Remember that an excellent reference from your employer where you have been in a stable position will help you in the long run.

When is a good time to find a job?

On the assumption that you haven’t just changed jobs, then there’s no time like the present! Job hunting takes time, sometimes months or even years so be patient and start the search earlier than when you desperately need to leave!

Will travel be required?

If you are applying for a role that involves managing people or advising business units located in the region, then travel is usually required. However, in this digital day and age, regional travel can sometimes be done within 1-2 days or timed more efficiently so that some of it may instead be done remotely via VC, telephone or other communication methods.

It is a valid question to ask but one should never be surprised if travel is required for a regional role!

What can I do to become a General Counsel?

As we all know, the General Counsel position is usually the top of the legal chain in the in-house arena. To increase your chances of advancing to this role internally, you should network both internally and externally with external counsel.

You should also grasp every opportunity to increase/advance your exposure to the business and every avenue to manage people/grow a team. Keeping abreast of the latest legal and regulatory updates that could affect your organisation’s business activities is a given. Rolling up your sleeves in the face of lean resources can also help you excel.

Is there anything else I can do to help with my job search?

I’ve managed to watch some movies (names in brackets below) during the holidays and discovered some useful analogies to job hunting:

  • Even if you want to have “free” reign in your job search, extrinsic matters may impact upon it so the support from family and friends is crucial ("Bohemian Rhapsody")
  • Communication, understanding and persistence will help you get to where you want to be ("Blinded by the Light")
  • Overcome your pre-conceptions and prejudices and be tolerant and embrace change ("Green Book")

In summary, don’t let your job search define you. Instead, stay calm and do things that you enjoy to remain positive. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (eating healthily and exercising regularly) and pursuing hobbies and/or yoga or meditation to de-stress, doing some volunteer work, travelling or learning/improving your languages and continuously learning and being inspired when job searching will also help!

"Don’t let your job search define you. Instead, stay calm and do things that you enjoy to remain positive"

There’s always an abundance of legal developments and updates and this could be an opportune time to take up a course or enhance your knowledge in current hot topics such as fintech, virtual banking, AI, competition law, trade practices or data privacy etc.

It's also a good idea to surround yourself with positive people who you can learn from and stay positive!

Be adaptable and flexible. 

If there’s an interim role or other non-legal role available, try it out. It may lead to the role being extended to a permanent position or creating other leads. Furthermore, both you and the employer can use the opportunity to try before you buy. If, on the other hand, you are entrepreneurial, can you build a business to play on your other strengths, abilities/skills or interests?

Will my future employer pay for my Hong Kong practising certificate and CPD courses?

This depends on if your employer needs you to “sign” Hong Kong documents in a legal capacity. If they do not, then they are highly unlikely to pay for your practising certificate.

CPD courses are now often readily available to in-house lawyers for free from law firms and other organisations so you may not need your employer to pay for these. Clocking up the CPD requirements is not difficult to do but what you will need to do is to have your employer's support to attend them.

What are the latest hiring trends and salaries?

See what’s hot and what’s not by clicking here to get a copy of our latest salary survey:

Or for a confidential discussion or if you have any other questions, please contact me at: 


About the Author

Annie Tang

Annie is a co-Managing Director of Star Anise, focusing on in-house legal roles. She is a former practising Hong Kong lawyer and a mother of two.

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