Here’s why law firms are bound to evolve

by Sol Dolor23 Aug 2017
Caroline Beaumont has a bold prediction about the future of law firms. She thinks that they will inevitably evolve into something else.

It’s not because she has a bone to pick with law firms; far from it. In fact, she started her legal career at legacy Rudd Watts & Stone, Bell Gully, and Russell McVeagh – some of the largest law firms in the country. Her experience in private practice combined with a successful in-house career is perhaps why she has the unique experience that informs her prediction.

In this conversation, Coca-Cola Amatil New Zealand’s general counsel and executive director also explains what she would change in the in-house legal space, her tip for lawyers in in-house teams to achieve better work/life balance, and her advice to lawyers who are interested in making the move away from private practice.

Did you always plan to become general counsel of a major business?
Can I honestly say that I took charge of my career and set it on a planned trajectory to attain greater advancement potential and elevated job satisfaction? No. Did I research all of my options thoroughly and strategically? Nope. Did I undertake an introspective review to work out what made me tick and what motivated me? Definitely not. Did I give it pretty much no thought at all? Basically, yes. That said, I knew fairly early on in my career that private practice wasn’t for me, nor I for it. Lots of long hours, and little in the way of happiness, except for Friday night drinks. If I knew then what I know now, I might have networked more widely and documented my career goals. Then again, I might not have. My work style and personality didn’t fit naturally with a hierarchal chain of command that exists, or used to, in private practice.

What are the main differences and similarities between your work for Coca-Cola Amatil and when you were in private practice?
For me, the key differences are being part of a team with a shared goal, feeling loved, feeling valued, work/non-work balance, and having genuine passion for the company. It’s been a very long time since I was in private practice, but I can’t think of any obvious similarities. I don’t have the hot and cold running luxuries of resources, precedents, access to research, and colleagues off whom to bounce ideas. I’m a generalist, who works on a number of difference practice areas on any given day. The variety is stimulating.

What is your advice to lawyers wanting to make the switch to in-house roles?
Talk to other in-house lawyers first. Network extensively. Hunt people down via LinkedIn and be bold about asking for their views.

Caroline Beaumont

How can lawyers have better work-life balance?
Being in-house, the work load is still intense but you can control the expectations of the client. Legal advice is something that can, thanks to technology, be dispensed remotely. So, build up trust credits with your employer so that they allow you to work from home every once in a while.

Working in track pants is nirvana. I get the sense that corporates are on-board with the whole 9 to 5 anathema. If you cover your workload, it really doesn’t matter when you do it.

What gets you up in the morning? What do you love most about your job?
The gym, and my two ex-stray puppies. They were abandoned outside our house and our hearts ruled our heads. What I love most about my job, unquestioningly, are my colleagues. They are fun, appreciative, caring, and very special.

On the flip side, what would you change if you could change anything with your job, and in general, the legal profession?
If I had a magic wand, I’d introduce some technological innovation to our contracting and employment processes. We underinvest in this area and could be so much more efficient. You have to accept that, in house, investment is best directed to activities that positively impact the P&L. e-Contracting isn’t necessarily going to do that in the short term.

As for the legal profession? There are a lot of people armed with law degrees. It’s a great degree to have, and showcases your intellect and commitment to study, but could universities offer something else that would be as marketable or practical? If you stuck a blow torch under my toes, I’d predict the demise of laws firms in their current form. When? Not sure. Perhaps by the next generation? It’s an expensive model and organisations can get so much “legal advice” off the web, for nothing or practically nothing. There is definitely a value to external counsel, but the current cost structure is unsustainable. Just my view though.

Are you seeing a shift in terms of gender equality in businesses and more particularly, among legal teams in businesses?
Personally, I haven’t noticed a seismic shift but I hear a lot of rhetoric. The change will come, but it may be glacial. My observation is that the rates of women achieving partnership are better than they were 20 years ago but still persistently lower than their male counterparts. In New Zealand, currently, 49% of lawyers are women, and 61.3% of in-house lawyers are women. This suggests to me that there are a number of push factors encouraging women lawyers to switch in-house. Many women, like me, make a conscious decision not to pursue partnership but still aspire to successful careers. Being in-house provides other opportunities to achieve your personal career goals and to have a family life.

What’s your greatest achievement outside of work? How were you able to achieve it?
Cheesy as it sounds, and is, my two girls. I’m not sure that they would define themselves as an “achievement,” but they are happy, well-grounded, respectful, loving people. If we continue to populate the planet, we have a duty to ensure that our “outputs” contribute positively. I talk about in-house and the accommodation of family life, but I can’t take the credit for raising my girls. My mum took up a great deal of the slack in their formative years, with school runs, doctors’ visits. I religiously attend all sporting events and prize givings.

I’ve knocked off the odd marathon as well. I genuinely can’t imagine running 42kms now, and I don’t know how I did it. I still rank those runs as massive personal achievements given the kids, and working full time. Sheer dogged determination to push myself way outside my comfort zone. These days, I don’t venture close to the edges of my comfort.

What do you love to do outside of work?
I love to exercise, watch sport, and spend time with my people and fur babies.

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