Written by Valeria Ivasikh, Legal Manager at SeedslLegal
In Crafty Counsel’s January community newsletter there was a feature on the pros and cons of moving in-house. This reminded me about my own doubts and fears that I had to face before taking the leap from private practice into an in-house career. It also reminded me about an academic paper on “job crafting” that I had stumbled upon, and which helped me immensely in this transition. Job crafting is a bona fide research field in sociology. With that name, I thought it would be criminal not to share it with the Crafty community.
From in-house to private practice
My first job out of university was in-house, and so my first impression from working with external law firms was underwhelming: I did not find them particularly helpful and would often struggle to find answers to my seemingly binary questions in their long memos, where helpful guidance was buried under pages upon pages of disclaimers and limitation-of-liability paragraphs. As a result, I became rather disillusioned with private practice, so much so that when I got an offer to join a law firm in London, I was genuinely reluctant to accept – but I did join, and went on to stay there for six years.
Most of you have been there so we don’t need to recap in detail the many perks that come with a law firm tenure: all the intellectual challenges, the variety of clients and the projects they bring, the new connections, the productive stress, and of course the obligatory summer rooftop receptions that every consultant was hosting. I was fortunate to enjoy quite a bit of autonomy as well as I led the firm’s venture practice. And I met some incredible private practice lawyers, astonishingly competent and having a seemingly infinite capacity for work.
But time and again, I would hit that invisible wall – or a glass ceiling, if you will: as a consultant, there’s only this much you can do and say before you approach the limit of the scope of your engagement – or that of your PI Insurance. And you can only be this thorough if you are to progress all of your projects and return all of your clients’ calls for the day. In short, I felt ready to go back in-house.
I wanted to feel like a team player again, to have more agency, to really go out of my way to help the business get where it needs to get, within law and reason – but without having to bite my tongue every time I could think of a solution that was not quite conventional. And yet, it took me a couple of years to summon the courage for the change.
My biggest fear was that I would lose that novelty that comes with private practice, where no two days and no two projects are the same. Perhaps variety really is the very spice of life, and it can be scary to lose. As I scrolled through in-house job offers I imagined ironed-out templates and streamlined processes, red tape and rigid internal hierarchies – which in my book is a rather suffocating prospect.
Enter job crafting
Social science has been studying job crafting for over 20 years. I was lucky to stumble upon a study from 2001 in which hospital janitors reported drastically varying levels of job satisfaction despite having identical job descriptions. While many of the interviewees had nothing positive to say about their jobs, others found a lot of meaning in their day-to-day. One example that stuck with me was that of the employee who cleansed intensive care units, where patients were supposed to be either unresponsive or at the very least immobile. That particular janitor took it upon themselves to switch wall art around every now and again so that patients did not have to stare at the same painting all the time.
So I started telling myself that I, too, could be that janitor. I became convinced that in my future in-house career I could always resort to job crafting: I could go above and beyond and shift the boundaries of my role. And now, over two years after taking the leap, I am pleased to confirm that it has been working.
I chose well, I suppose, because my new role was to be in a startup, a Legal Tech company – and, as many Crafty members will know, a young business is anything but boring. The beauty, and chaos, and thrill of Legal Tech means I am yet to experience any shortage of variety.
Job crafting is easier in Tech
As it turns out, it was not enough to be a “good lawyer” in a young business navigating the fast-expanding tech space. I also had to be an agile lawyer, quick on my feet, and keep an open mind – because I need all of that every time I discover that the new product feature (that the whole business is so excited about!) tackles an age-old problem in too novel a way, and there is no case law to rely on, and we are all suspended in a bit of legal vacuum. And yet, I still need to ensure that our product is legally sound and safe to use, both for my employer and for our customer.
Another area for constant improvement is stakeholder management. Client skills do come in handy – but there has been much more to learn. Day in, day out I am in a room with exceptionally smart people with strong opinions, and they are overflowing with novel ideas calling for urgent implementation. At the same time, a lawyer’s natural preference quite often is – and for a good reason – to make the client pause, reflect and consider, to make sure they really understand the implication of their every step. And I find there is great beauty to be found in this meeting of perspectives, this swapping of your legal hat for a user experience or product manager’s – it just tickles my brain in a new kind of way, and I learn something every time.
And then there are the business-specific skills, and there are so many opportunities to learn! With the help of our Tech team, I picked up coding, which means I can not only help the business by automating that new agreement I have designed, but I can also shift gears and think like a developer, and use that novel frame of thinking for strictly legal tasks too.
Next time we feel stuck on our in-house journey, let us remember that humble janitor who defied the limits of their job description, and find our own proverbial paintings to swap around.