Mel Scott: Working as an in house lawyer & getting your first opportunity
Mel Scott is an in house lawyer for a global technology company called Megaport. Mel explains what an in house lawyer does, what her role is like and how she ended up working in house. Mel shares what her journey through law school was like and how she landed her first graduate role — 180 resumes later! Mel talks about the importance of treating your legal career as a marathon not a sprint, self-belief and backing yourself, accepting that no experience is ever wasted and the importance of looking after yourself.
Being an in house lawyer
Mel explains that an in house lawyer works for one company and therefore only has one client at a time, compared to a lawyer who works in private practice who has multiple clients at any given time. An in house lawyer advises the company on a range of different areas of law, with a focus on commercial and corporate law, but there can be industry specific nuances — for example, as Mel works for a technology company she can deal with intellectual property, employment law, immigration law for employees who want to work in another country if it is a global company, privacy law and data protection. Mel says she is a jack of all trades and a master of some. Mel is equipped to deep dive as much as she needs to but will seek expert advice where it is needed. Mel says the best part about being an in house lawyer is that she doesn’t have to bill her time, so there are no six minute units when you work in house. In contrast, in most private practices you bill your time in six minute units (unless it is a fixed fee firm) — so a unit for reading an email and maybe 10 units (or an hour) to write a letter of advice. Often, your billable hours and the money that you are generating for the firm is a factor in determining how valuable you are. However, Mel explains that her worth as an in house lawyer is not determined by billable units.
Working with multiple areas of law
Mel initially started working in private practice in corporate advisory work. When Mel started looking for her first in house role she was 3 years PAE (Post Admission Experience) and there weren’t many junior in house roles around at the time. Mel focused on networking in order to land herself an opportunity. Mel’s first in house role was at Brisbane Airport Corporation and she says that while there wasn’t a lot of similarity between her first two roles, there were a lot of skills that she had as a lawyer that were transferrable. Mel was exposed to a lot of different areas of law in her first in house role that she hadn’t dealt with before and she just had to dive in the deep end, learn and ask her senior colleagues. Mel understands that it may sound daunting to have to be across so many areas of the law as an in house lawyer but she explains that you just have a basic understanding of the fundamentals and you learn where the red flags are and where your experience ends and you need to seek assistance from a colleague or an external lawyer or barrister.
It’s okay if you don’t know the answer
Mel explains that your client would much rather the right answer later than the wrong answer now. So, if you are faced with a situation or question where you aren’t certain of the best advice to give, it is okay to say that you aren’t sure but that you will find out and get back to them. It is often difficult to admit that you don’t know the answer, especially when you are starting out as it can make you feel like you don’t know what you are doing — but the truth is, you’re just starting out and you won’t know everything, even when you are an experienced lawyer you may find yourself in a situation where a question or problem arises that you haven’t dealt with before and you may need to seek assistance. Mel explains that most clients are quite reasonable and would prefer to wait for the right answer than be given the wrong advice now.
Mel’s journey into law
Mel really enjoyed Legal Studies in High School and was the top of her class, so it seemed like a natural transition for her into studying law at university. Mel didn’t know anyone in law or have any family members or friends who were lawyers, so she had a very limited understanding of what her career options would be when she started studying law. Mel said that she went through law school without a very clear idea of life after and she picked up on what her friends would talk about in terms of clerkships, vacation clerkships and that she had to get her head around what it meant to practice as a lawyer. Mel, like me, didn’t realise that PLT (Practical Legal Training) was a thing, or what it was until later in her degree. Mel and I never knew about PLT when we started studying law and we didn’t realise that you had to study an additional Diploma once you completed your Bachelor of Laws in order to practice as a lawyer. So, if that is a surprise to you too — you’re not alone! (I have a blog post where I talk about what PLT is, so if you’re not sure either — have a read of that here!)
Not being the smartest person in the room
Having been the top of her class when she studied Legal Studies at High School, Mel found it hard to no longer be the best anymore when she was at law school and surrounded by many other intelligent people. Mel found that her great marks at High School didn’t translate to great marks at university and that her way of studying didn’t get the results that she was previously accustomed to. Mel did struggle to determine how she needed to study in order to get the results that she wanted. Mel had an adjustment period where she had to learn what her lecturers wanted, the essay style and the complex referencing (thanks AGLC!). I can completely agree with this. It took me a good two or three years of part-time study to work out the best way for me to take notes, learn, write assignments, research and study for exams. So, don’t worry if you need to take some time to learn what works for you and your grades aren’t what you had hoped for when you start. I was achieving fours and fives when I started and sixes and sevens when I graduated. (I have a post where I share my study tips and what worked for me if you want to have a read, you can read it here.) In contrast, Mel saw her friends obtaining sevens with ease and found this confusing as she was trying but not able to obtain the same results as easily. But as Mel explains, there is a saying that what got you here, won’t get you there and what got Mel to university was not going to get her to the end of her degree with the same results. So, Mel either had to get used to lower marks or she had to really increase her effort to obtain better results. Mel explains that she struggled with finding the right balance because she really enjoyed the social and extracurricular aspects of university. Mel says she had a lot of fun at university and was not a model student in terms of grades — but it hasn’t held her back from a successful career in law.
Getting a graduate role
Mel applied for all of the clerkships available, made it known that she was willing to travel to work in all areas of the country and regional areas, but she was unsuccessful in all of her applications. Mel explains that there was a computer system which determined applications based on certain thresholds for your marks at university, and because Mel didn’t meet those requirements, her applications weren’t even being considered. Mel really struggled with understanding that what the market wanted, a certain GPA, was not something that she had and determining how she could move forward from that. When Mel graduated she had some work experience from her previous boyfriend’s family’s law firm but there were no other opportunities on the horizon at the time. So, Mel decided to take a year off to work in administration, save and backpack around Europe. Mel really enjoyed this time off after having been studying for a number of years. When Mel returned to Australia, all of her university friends were starting graduate roles, were already working in graduate roles, were commencing PLT or their Masters. Mel relied on the network she had built when she was at university, swallowed her pride and door knocked and dropped her resume at all of the law firms and barrister’s chambers that she could find in the City in the Yellow Pages. 180 resumes later, (yes, you read that correctly!) Mel received one opportunity. One week later when Mel hadn’t heard anything and was about to extend her search outside of the City, she got a call from the Careers Advisor at university about an opportunity for a law graduate. Mel had reached out to the Careers Advisor earlier and had also connected with her during university as she was involved in the Law Society. Mel ended up getting an interview at a big firm called Corrs Chambers Westgarth, which Mel didn’t previously think was a law firm which was available to her with her university GPA (which was around a Credit or a five). However, Mel was involved in many extracurricular activities, volunteering and mooting — so she did have a point of difference. Mel had her interview and scraped in as the 11th law graduate to start a few months later. Mel had to rely on every network, door knock and drop her resume, and by putting herself out there and persisting — Mel got her first opportunity. As Mel explains, you may apply for hundreds of positions and get disheartened when you aren’t successful — but you aren’t wanting five opportunities because you only need one! Applying for jobs is a numbers game, so you just have to keep taking action despite all of the road blocks and rejections and you will eventually find a way. Mel explains that she has seen with many of her colleagues and friends, everyone finds their way in law and even though your start may not be in the area of law or where you thought it would be, keeping an open mind is really important to get your first foot in the door.
Utilise social media for networking
Mel says that you may need to barge the door down to get your first opportunity in law. You can do this by continuing to show up after rejections, calling your contacts and reaching out to people on LinkedIn and Instagram. Mel says that not too many law students and graduates reach out to her on Instagram to establish a connection and that for those who do, they stand out. Mel explains that this is important because often jobs are filled before they are even advertised by lawyers reaching out to their networks to see if anyone knows of someone looking. I can personally attest to this happening — my first job interview after I lost my job due to COVID-19 was from a lawyer who posted on Facebook about looking for someone and they were reaching out before advertising the position. They received 18 resumes from that post and five of us were lucky enough to have interviews. Safe to say that role was filled without being advertised and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be considered if I hadn’t of made connections with my colleagues. Mel explains that there is a hidden network behind job applications on Seek, etc. and that is just simply who you know. Mel explains that networking can see opportunities arise in the most magnificent of ways — and that is what happened for her. Mel explains though that it is important to build connections before you are looking for work, as you are more likely to receive assistance if you have an established relationship with someone rather than reaching out only when you are looking for work.
Mel says that if you simply do not accept that there is another option and that you will be working as a lawyer — then you will make it happen. Again, I couldn’t agree more. When I was starting out and had no law firm experience at all, I was told by lawyers that they wouldn’t hire me and that I would struggle to find a job. But, I believed in myself, I told myself that I would get a lawyer role — I said it out aloud, I told everyone that I knew, and it happened. Not overnight, but a couple of months later. Mel says that you need to be careful with the pressure you put on yourself, especially being a graduate/early career lawyer, you are likely already particularly good at that — but that there is nothing wrong with being your own cheerleader and believing in yourself. After all, you can’t convince a firm to invest in you, if you don’t believe in yourself first!
No experience is ever wasted
Mel explains that it isn’t smooth sailing for 95% of law students getting their start in law and finding their way — so have some comfort in knowing that there isn’t one right way. Mel says that when she is hiring now and she sees applications for a junior or mid-level lawyer and they have got an interesting start, whether that is in a different area of law, or they are from a regional area, Mel says that showing some sort of resilience will make her interested in that person. So, having to fight for an opportunity will help build your character and likely be valued by a future employer. Mel says that no experience is ever wasted and if you find yourself in a different area of law than you may have hoped or an area which you aren’t particularly enjoying, know that the experience will be teaching you something. Mel can reflect on her career so far of almost ten years working in law and appreciate her journey and the twists and turns that she has gone through to get to where she is now and the resilience that she has built.
Treat your legal career like a marathon, not a sprint
Mel truly believes that your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You can give yourself the time to find your way and let yourself not have everything figured out. Mel explains that we are all trying to find our own way to practice law which makes us happy and content and that will mean many different things to different people. Mel says that if you treat your career in law as a marathon it can help by taking the pressure off a little to go with the twists and the turns and to take the path less travelled — to take time off to travel, to move for work, to move to a regional area, to work outside of the law and then come back in, and just being open to unexpected opportunities. Mel says that if you had of told her ten years ago that she would be working for a global technology company as a lawyer, she would have thought how is that possible — as Mel wasn’t aware that being an in house lawyer was a thing at university and she would have thought that you were crazy. Mel expects that in the next ten years she will likely be doing things in the law that she never would have thought she would — and that is the beautiful thing about working in law. Mel explains that if you take the pressure off yourself and treat it like a long game, that will help in the more difficult moments where you aren’t sure what you are doing or you’re not enjoying the role, because you will know it is leading you somewhere and that you have time to work it out.
Look after yourself
Mel says that we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of looking after our health and being kind to ourselves. We can’t treat our bodies like robots — we are humans and we are having a human experience so we need rest, water, nourishing food and movement. Prioritising your mental health is fundamental to your longevity in any career, but particularly in one such as law where it can be stressful. Mel explains that the sooner that you become familiar with your patterns, your ups and downs, your emotions and what you need in order to work optimally, the better you will be equipped to come to work bright and energised (but not every day of course!). Mel says these are things she never heard anyone say to her at law school but that they are fundamental to her being a good lawyer.
If you’re considering a career as an in house lawyer
Mel says that to work as an in house lawyer you should enjoy communicating with lots of different people who aren’t lawyers and be able to tailor your communication method to the type of person who you are dealing with. Mel explains that on any day she could be preparing an advice for the CEO, sending a slack message to someone on the ground or anything in between. People need different amounts of information and it will need to be delivered in different ways depending on who you are dealing with, so being able to communicate with lots of different types of people is fundamental. Mel believes that having empathy and understanding what the person you are communicating with needs from you is the key. Mel says that when you are in private practice you deliver your advice beautifully, in a detailed letter and there might be multiple sets of eyes who have checked it, but in the in house world things are moving quickly and you don’t have the luxury of a perfectly presented opinion because commercial decisions need to be made. A commercial decision takes into account what you know about the business and how that affects the advice, the risk involved and the time you take will be determined by the value of the contract and what happens if it goes bad. Mel has observed that more and more legal departments within companies are hiring junior lawyers and graduates, especially in bigger companies, because of the cost savings of having in house lawyers rather than paying per hour to outsource that advice. Mel also believes that having an in house lawyer who knows the company inside and out means that they can give really tailored advice and this is valued by businesses. Mel says that if you can’t find your way into an in house role as a junior lawyer or graduate, the other option is to take a role in a general commercial private practice and get really good at reviewing commercial contracts and then looking at opportunities when you are more experienced. Mel says you can also look for secondment opportunities while in private practice, which is where you go into a commercial client’s office as a contracted lawyer to assist them on a legal project. That is what Mel did and what first got her interested in working as an in house lawyer because she really enjoyed the secondment.
Mel’s awesome tips
It’s okay if you don’t know the answer and need to seek help — a client would rather the right answer later than the wrong answer now!
It’s okay if it takes you some time to work out the best way to study and work to get good results at university and to balance your social life with study!
You can still have a successful career in law even if you don’t get the highest grades at university!
Getting your foot in the door as a graduate means multiple applications, door knocking and dropping your resume, reaching out to your contacts and persisting until you find something!
Don’t be afraid to back yourself and believe that you will get whatever role you are looking for!
Keep an open mind with opportunities to get your first foot in the door in a legal role — no experience is ever wasted even if it isn’t the area of law you love!
Look after your mental and physical health and be kind to yourself!
Mel is happy for you to reach out to her on LinkedIn or Instagram if you have any questions -
Mel’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/melissastoreyscott/
Mel’s Instagram: @theinhouselawyer