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The changing face of General Counsel

If, like me, you believe that the essence of good client service is knowing your client, The Legal 500 General Counsel Powerlist for Australia and New Zealand should make for a fascinating read.

The list, which details the 101 most influential in-house lawyers in Australasia, found that 44% of the best GCs are women. That alone should be extraordinary given that female lawyers occupy just over 20% of senior positions in private practice.

But that’s really just the headline statistic in what’s a treasure trove of market intelligence for law firms. And to save you the trouble of having to analyse everything yourself, we’ve spent some time compiling the highlights.

1. Finance rules the roost

Perhaps unsurprisingly, finance and insurance is the industry that contains most of the heavy hitters, with 24% of the top 101 GCs working for banks and other financial institutions. This was followed by a dead heat between mining and manufacturing, which both sat at 12%. Although, if and when mining swings back into gear, will this change too?

2. The centre of gravity straddles the Ditch

Just as the All Blacks punch well above their weight, so do New Zealand’s in-house lawyers. No less than 20% of the top GCs came from the Shaky Isles. While this was still well behind Sydney (with 42%), our friends across the Tasman were better represented than Melbourne (17%), Perth (9%) and Adelaide and Brisbane (3% each).

3. Minters is the preferred training ground

Of the 78 general counsel on the list who also included their career history on LinkedIn (yes, we spent some serious time snooping), no less than 10 had worked at Minter Ellison. Meanwhile, 8 had worked at King & Wood Mallesons (or Mallesons, as it was previously known) and 6 at each of Clayton UtzCorrs Chambers Westgarth and Russell McVeagh.

4. It’s also the preferred last stop

On top of that, 7 had left Minters directly to go in-house, while 5 had left Clayton Utz, 4 Bell Gully and 4 King & Wood Mallesons. So there must be something in that…

Does it tell us that these are the firms that best equip their lawyers with the skills needed to flourish in a commercial role? Or simply that they’re the ones going through the biggest periods of change, where many of the best and brightest moved on?

5. Many made the switch early

Another interesting piece of data we analysed was when the powerlisters changed their career direction. For those we were able to find information on, we noticed that most - 32% of them - switched when they were at Senior Associate level, which is what most of us expected. But interestingly, 22% of lawyers went in-house while they were still juniors and just 15% moved across after having worked as partner in a firm.

To some extent this contradicts the general wisdom that it’s best to have some serious runs on the board before making the transition from private practice to in-house. It also reminds us how important the support of young lawyers is to future networks and reputation.

6. Three's the magic number

That said, the average influential GC had worked for three firms in four different roles. Many also passed through multiple in-house roles before being elevated to the position of general counsel. So variety rather than length of experience is key if you want to be an influential GC. 

7. 2003 was a very good year

It also seems that 2003 was a very good year for making the transition from private practice lawyer to in-house counsel - at least that was the average year that the powerlist jumped ship. Significantly, no less than 55% of the powerlist transferred from private practice between 2000 and 2009, while only 15% transferred after 2010. Is this a sign that the days of the biggest opportunities for an in-house career have passed? Or does it simply show that lawyers need a certain amount of in-house experience before they become influential?

8. So was 2009

That’s when the average powerlister joined their current employer, which means that your average influential GC has been with their current boss for around seven years. Does the seven year itch apply to GCs too? Well, at least two left their employer between the research being compiled in October 2015 and published in February 2016.

And what does it all mean?

So that’s our snapshot of what the most influential general counsel look like in our part of the world. You can read the whole list here.

While we find it fascinating, we’d also love to hear your opinion on what stands out for you, or what you think it all means. 

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