Emily Acland on how to be an in-house lawyer

by Edward Cranswick17 Apr 2019

Emily Acland, Vocus Group’s general counsel for New Zealand, capped off a hard-working 2018 by winning the Anthony Harper Young In-House Lawyer of the Year Award at the 2018 New Zealand Law Awards.

We asked Acland what she thinks sets her apart from other lawyers in this area. She replied that she doesn’t think that she’s any different to anyone else. Rather, she says she was simply the beneficiary of working for a company where there was a lot of dynamic work and growth going on.

Vocus Group recently acquired an electricity company, and so the company went from being a telco to being a telco-and-electricity company. There was thus a heap of regulatory work to do – and a lot of learning – both for Acland and her staff.

“I think in terms of the award, that was recognition of quite a big volume and quite a big range of work,” she says.

Acland has already packed a lot of career into a short time, especially for someone who wasn’t even sure she wanted to do law in the first place.

“I kind of fell into law just by default. I think I’m quite similar to a lot of people in that I ended up choosing to study law because nothing else really appealed to me that much,” she says.

Yet, she embraced it with gusto, and her 10 or so years in the legal profession have seen her move to London – where at Freshfields she was doing often high-intensity M&A work, six nights a week, and finishing before midnight only if she was lucky – and back again. The major turning point of her career thus far was returning to New Zealand, and the move in-house.

“The move in-house is actually bigger than people give it credit for,” she says. “Going from private practice to in-house is two fundamentally different careers, really.

“I always had a feeling that private practice wasn’t going to be long-term for me. It was a fantastic way for me to have a solid grounding but I always had an inkling, I actually love working for the business, being immersed in the business,” Acland says. “So when I made the move in-house it was a pretty big turning point, because it was a role I absolutely loved, and I thought: ‘This is going to be long-term.’”

She doesn’t soft pedal the difficulty of her transition from private-practice to in-house, describing it as “total chaos at the time.”

“I mean, it’s terrifying because there’s a lot to learn. It almost seems like you’re starting back at the beginning, but I was really lucky to move in-house and work under a fantastic general counsel who gave me a lot of training in a great team that I worked with. And I feel like in any job, what gives you satisfaction is actually constantly learning and constantly up-skilling,” Acland says.

But while in-house work is far from easy, it does have its pleasures.

“I think the joy of coming back to New Zealand and having more reasonable hours is that we’re lucky enough to work till 5:30, 6:00 at the latest. We’ve still got hours of daylight free to do some exercise or go for a nice meal out or walk the dog – so it’s been so refreshing to come back to New Zealand and have that lifestyle again. When in London, I’d finish work and it would be dark outside,” she says.

We asked her for some predictions on the future of law. Naturally enough, she cited legal tech as being of prime importance – AI for contract review, improved management structures, etc. – but more than that she was “optimistic that we are going to see far more flexible work-life balance being prioritised.”

“I think it’s becoming increasingly realised that to retain good staff – and particularly female staff – private law firms and companies need to be far more accommodating in terms of genuinely flexible working arrangements,” Acland says.

She also foresees a greater integration of the role of in-house counsel with the rest of the business.

“I think we’re seeing it turn into a far more immersive role … I think the focus for lawyers in-house now is really on value creation, really working to generate revenue rather than just providing ad-hoc legal advice,” she says.

What advice would she give to young would-be Emily Aclands? What advice did she wish she’d had in earlier years?

“‘Worry less. It’s the journey more than the destination.’ At a younger age in your career you can become incredibly fixated on where you need to end up, so just take it year by year and don’t overthink how you’re getting to what you’ve decided is your overall career goal. I think things happen quite organically, and I also think that where people end up is absolutely not where they initially thought they’d be,” she says.

Organic or not, Acland’s career has certainly developed in a particularly propitious manner. Maybe it’s because of a motto she applies to both her personal and professional life, counselling the need to not waste time on pursuits that aren’t working out.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough,” she says.

“I just don’t see any point staying for any long amount of time in a job that you hate. I see so many lawyers that stick to things or stay in jobs that don’t satisfy them. I just feel that life is too short for that.”