Managing the transition between in-house, private practice and legal specialisms - Baljeet Panesar, Senior Legal Councel at DHL

 

At our recent LexisNexis Aspire networking and professional group facilitated by Sophie Gould, we had the pleasure of welcoming Baljeet Panesar, Senior Legal Counsel at DHL, formerly of Dentons to share her personal experiences working both in-house and in private practice.

Background

Baljeet started off by talking a bit about her background and route into the legal industry. She was a real anomaly within her family – they didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer, and she was the first person in her family to go to university.

She described how much of it felt accidental or fortuitous. She didn’t really choose to be a lawyer, lots of her friends had chosen it and it seemed to be reasonable enough choice to qualify for her parent’s approval. She applied for training contracts (again because that’s what everyone else was doing) and managed to secure a trainee role at Dentons.

Early years

During much of her first few years at Dentons, Baljeet told us she really didn’t feel like she knew what she was doing. when asked later on, how she coped with that feeling, Baljeet said the following aspects helped:

  •  she enjoyed her work and received strong feedback
  •  she found allies, and
  •  (most importantly) she found her own authentic voice, and found clients responded much more warmly to this approach

Baljeet qualified into M&A and continued to practice in this area for 15 years. Whilst she really enjoyed the work, she chose not to take on a partner role because, in her words ‘it didn’t look like fun’, and it was more about whip cracking those below them than actually interacting with clients and doing fulfilling work. On top of this, she really enjoyed being able to train up the new trainees, getting deals done and working collaboratively with other teams in the company.

Private Practice to In-house

After a while, Baljeet realised that she wanted to start a family, but that everyone on her team who had left to have children had never come back to work again. Despite this, she managed it twice and returned to work after trying to ask to go part-time but being shut-down.

Baljeet started to find the deals less interesting and considered moving roles. The benefit of working in M&A is that it encompasses a huge breadth of work, and you end up needing to know a little bit about everything. She knew it would be difficult to find a similarly expansive role.

She became aware of DHL through work doing on a transaction with them and was offered the role of IT legal consultant. Despite being ill-equipped for this area, the General Counsell at DHL said, ‘you can learn it’ and Baljeet accepted the job with this mindset. A tech role working in-house offers a similarly broad variety of work and therefore suited Baljeet’s desire for a role akin to working on M&As.

One of our audience enquired as to whether Baljeet found this transition easier do to her senior position and level of experience. Baljeet responded that it was hard to judge as she had nothing to compare it to but that perhaps her confidence level (as a result of her experience) assisted with the transition. Much of her success was a product of her learning to trust in herself and realising that most of her skills were easily transferable. Also, most contracts look pretty similar! Baljeet countered this by saying if the move had been into a contentious role she may have struggled due to her prior experience being purely transactional.

Benefits of working In-house

Some of the benefits of working in-house is that it is easier to dip a toe into a wider breadth of areas. Baljeet advised that you need to be willing to upskill much of the time e.g. by reading widely and asking questions when necessary to gain a better understanding. This must be correctly balanced, and you need to decide how much researching and learning is actually an effective use of your time. Baljeet also emphasised that her decision to move in-house was not a flippant one, and she recommended asking yourself the same questions she asked herself before making that decision or similar:

  • can I do this?
  • can I do this well?
  • how will this help me in my next role?

Further, Baljeet mentioned that the merit of working in a tech-role is that it is applicable anywhere and to any business.

In-house to Private Practice transition

An audience member enquired whether Baljeet considered a transition in the reverse was a feasible option. Baljeet responded that, although a rare occurrence, it is something that has been done by people she knows. For example, she had a friend who had worked in-house with a large bank in a regulatory role then moved into a regulatory role in a large law firm. At this point, one of the Aspire board mentioned that two of the board had already made this move successfully, and at the more junior end.

Changing direction

Baljeet asked us to consider whether we really need to know where we are going. Some people are motivated by having a quantifiable, focussed ambition. Whilst this is an excellent outlook, Baljeet reminded us that it is okay to make it up as you go to an extent: everyone evolves, and your aspirations are likely to evolve with you.

Purpose

What Baljeet is motivated by now is her purpose in life, a concept she had not realised until fairly recently. Baljeet’s purpose was to try and do some good in the world. When she was younger, her upbringing had been quite sheltered. Hence, when she reached university she was lacking in the extra-curriculars that her classmates had in abundance. To attempt to alleviate that, Baljeet started doing volunteer work. She still enjoys engaging in this social responsibility and now does a range of volunteering: from serving food to the homeless to providing free legal advice. The latter is something you can often do even if you work in-house as larger firms will often partner up and cover you for the required indemnity insurance.

One idea she suggested for more junior lawyers is to help take witness statements in situations like domestic violence. Another suggestion was to become a school governor: this gives you experience of sitting on a board and involves overseeing how a school’s leadership team makes their decisions.

Baljeet also recounted to us her experience as a stem cell donor and the ease with which you can sing up and donate. To do so, she recommended looking at the DKMS website and reading further into it.

Additional recommended reading:

First 100 days as an in-house lawyer - This note sets out advice on making the most of your first 100 days as an in-house lawyer

Three key challenges in first 100 days as in-house lawyer—checklist - This checklist sets out advice on making the most of your first 100 days as an in-house lawyer. It sets out how to use your induction, knowledge of the organisations finances and long term objectives to ensure you can offer effective legal support from the outset

Personal development tool—checklist - This is a checklist of 25 practical and largely cost-free personal development opportunities for the in-house legal team.

Unlocking your emotional intelligence—how working better with others helps to put you ahead – This discussion paper delves into the role of emotional intelligence in developing the effectiveness of the in-house legal team. It considers the following themes: What is emotional intelligence? Why does emotional intelligence matter? Emotional intelligence and leadership; law firms are from Mars in-house teams are from Venus

Personal development for in-house lawyers—building business leaders – This discussion paper looks at personal development and its application in the world of in-house lawyers



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