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My career story: “I moved into private practice after being an in-house GC”

Written by: The Lawyer
Published on: 23 Nov 2015

My career story article

Maclay Murray & Spens partner Jill Reid entered private practice after 25 years in-house with Chevron UK, Shell and Dana Petroleum.

Why did you make the move into private practice?

I feel that my role [at Dana] as General Counsel and Company Secretary in an oil and gas operating company having assets in multiple jurisdictions with a mandate to participate in the management team, identify the legal risks and build the in house legal team to manage those legal risks was my ideal in-house role. It was a new challenge building upon twenty some years’ experience in house at Shell and Chevron. After three years in that role, the team and the structure was in place to provide legal support to the company and the time came to move on.

But to where? As with the move to Dana from Shell, I wanted a new challenge that would allow me to develop new skills while applying and building upon my existing experience.

I had not considered going into private practice, in fact I was looking at a complete career change or possibly an industry change when I was approached by headhunters representing MMS. I had previously enjoyed working with Bill Fowler, head of oil and gas at MMS and based on this, the discussions moved forward.  

I started to practice law in-house very early on in my career so I gave some careful thought to a move into private practice. I liked the firm, which was very important, but the key criteria in deciding to accept the offer was the position of the MMS oil and gas team, the quality of lawyers and the MMS plans for the Aberdeen office.

What are the key differences between your old and new roles?

It is still early days so I am still getting used to the differences and am still thinking as an in-house lawyer. Perhaps I always will, which is no bad thing.

The common ground that I see for both in-house and private practice is managing clients’ expectations. Regardless of whether the advice is to work colleagues or clients, listening to what a client wants and advising them on what you can do is so important. This can apply to timing and to level of detail but of course the big difference in private practice is advising how much it will cost. It is not an exact science but the same principles of transparency and communication apply.

Remember that the clients do not have limitless budget for lawyers and that someone will have to explain what value the company gained in return for incurring that expenditure.    

I know that when I was in-house I wanted my external lawyers to either provide cost effective additional legal resources or an expertise that I did not have myself.  I never lose sight of this expectation.

I know that in my new role I can quickly and easily support clients who are looking for “an additional pair of hands” in the short term. Talking to them is important as what is right for one company culture is not necessarily right for another.

With regards to the provision of expertise, I am delighted that clients seek out my diverse upstream oil and gas experience that they do not have in house. I think that in providing this advice from a law firm where the law and the application of the law is the core business I have better and immediate access to legal materials and other lawyers across practice areas outside of oil and gas so that advice has more depth. This can be very helpful especially in advising companies with smaller in house teams or perhaps no in house lawyers at all.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of making a similar move?

If I had one single piece of advice at this early stage it is this. If you’re considering the move from in-house to private practice, bear in mind that it will take a little time to adjust from providing legal support in house to the clients who are effectively colleagues working in the same company culture and probably the same location.

In private practice the culture that you work in is the law practice and the clients all bring their individual demands and expectations based upon their own company position and culture. While this provides an excellent opportunity to be objective in providing legal advice, it is up to you to understand their expectations.