Othelia Langner– Head of Legal and Compliance (Southern Africa) – Medtronic Africa (Pty) Ltd – an international medical devices company.
Life is all about the choices we make and the roads we take. When it comes to work, our dream job may not be what we anticipated. This is all part of the adventure.
I chatted with Othelia Langner, whose bubbly personality and enthusiasm for her law career made for a great opportunity to relay to prospective lawyers and qualified lawyers that the time-old phrase "there's a whole world out there to explore" really is true when it comes to law. Othelia's journey from candidate attorney to in-house counsel was not at all as she planned.
Othelia was very sure in her mind that once she graduated and had completed articles she would open her own law firm. Did that happen? No, but this is certainly one of the many possibilities when you study a law degree.
Othelia says she left it too late to acquire articles at a large firm. But she observes, "With hindsight that was probably a good thing because the experience I gained at the small firm where I started out probably outstripped anything I would have achieved at a large firm". She says she got great exposure across a wide range of sectors. It was tremendous experience and she is very proud of making the most of the opportunities she had. Othelia's advice is very clear, "Whichever choice you make, give it your very best shot. Grab every opportunity that comes your way. Success is about how much effort you are prepared to put in. Go into things with a great attitude, and then do your best." She discovered how many exciting roads there are to travel; as it turned out, after getting some practical experience, starting her own firm was no longer top priority. Instead she took the opportunity to work at a leading London law firm, was seconded to an investment bank in Moscow and then worked at a private equity firm in Kazakhstan. On her return to South Africa she elected to work for a firm of attorneys – Fasken – where she became a partner. But then the pull to explore further led her in-house, an option which had not been on her list when she graduated.
What advice does Othelia have for students? "First," she says, "there are pros and cons to all the choices we make. Don't feel you are letting yourself, or others, down if things don't turn out exactly as you plan."
Completing articles is a good start but Othelia adds, "Don't be hung up on getting articles at a large firm – there is a lot to be said for smaller firms. The salary might be less than at one of the large law firms but the experience gained will more than make up for that." At the larger firms there is likely to be more formal and specialised training in various practice areas as one moves up through the ranks. She says, "A law firm operates in a hierarchical way and working in a large firm you are likely to see yearly leaps both in position and pay." A smaller firm may not pay as much but it has the advantage of a collegiality that might well be missing from a large firm, and there is not the same sense of having to compete all the time. You will likely gain a broad range of knowledge and, in addition, your colleagues and management will know how hard you are working, and how efficiently, even if you don't leave the office at midnight each day. Of course, each firm is different so when you consider which firm to join, consider whether you will fit in with their corporate culture.
Wherever you go, and in whatever industry you may find yourself, Othelia feels strongly that one needs to "ask questions". But she hastily clarifies that saying, "Only after you understand what you need to know and have made every effort to find the answer yourself. There are no stupid questions but there are lazy questions, and nobody has time to deal with those."
So what about going in-house? Othelia believes it is a route probably best taken after about five years in practice. But, this does not mean that you can't or shouldn't join an in-house team sooner. She believes that being successful in-house requires pushing yourself – you need to ask yourself: how much effort are you prepared to put in? Generally it's not as competitive as working at a law firm so you need to kick-start yourself, learn as much as you can about your industry, find out what goals the organisation has and demonstrate your value to the team.
Starting with the cons: progression is going to take longer in-house. The legal department is likely to be smaller than a law firm and often there are only one or two "top jobs" in an in-house legal team so it may take some time for one of these roles to open up – even though you may feel ready to take on more responsibility. So if you are a junior, your journey up the ladder may take that much longer, which means your salary may not match an attorney's for quite some time. Generally there is no specific training structure in place – you need to ask who you will be learning from, and whether your tasks are going to be largely legal or have a more administrative focus where you mostly work with the same precedents. Surprisingly, while you may anticipate that you will now have only one client – the company for which you work – and not the average of 10 to 15 clients with whom you would work at a law firm, this is not necessarily the case. "Every person at the company whose work may require a legal answer is your client and you have to learn to balance the demands on your time."
That said, there are many pros for those who select in-house, particularly lawyers who are business oriented. If you enjoy a multiplicity of questions there are many companies that will appeal. If you like a more specialised organisation you may instead want to consider joining a team in a bank or an insurance company. The hours are better, mainly because you have more control and you learn to spend time in the most effective way. However, Othelia says that doesn't mean you don't work hard or that you couldn't work 24-hours a day, "I don't think I have ever worked so hard or with such intensity.
Working in-house means your brain constantly has to flip to different areas." However, what she enjoys is really getting to know the business and being able to provide practical solutions that result in business-friendly outcomes; there is a big difference in approach and you need to see the bigger picture.
Othelia says, "Use your law degree – it has taught you to think and question. Wherever you practise, attitude is key – you won't be successful if you just do the bare minimum. Do the basics yourself, find the answers, ask the pertinent questions, volunteer to do something different and get exposure. You will be much more confident and your colleagues will remember and trust your judgement."