How to make it to the top // In-house counsel guide

Bay Street towers in Toronto
Jacqueline Moss, executive vice-president of human resources at CIBC, shares how she made the leap from Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP to in-house in (and on top of) the corporate world

By Dawn Calleja

On Tuesday December 3rd, 2013


Precedent: What prompted you to go in-house? Jacqueline Moss at CIBC
I was an associate at Blakes and had been seconded to the CIBC legal department for six months. After that, I became partner and I started to do a lot of deals for CIBC. I was then asked by Mike Capatides, chief administrative officer and general counsel, administration division, to be the Canadian general counsel. It was a fantastic opportunity — and a big job at that point in my career.

How does working in-house differ from being at a law firm?
When I went in-house at CIBC it was more about being an advisor. You get a chance to understand the business and take part not only in legal decisions but assisting in business decisions. From a work-life balance perspective you have more control and can even out the hours more. You don’t get the same extreme peaks and valleys. Our in-house lawyers put in long hours — but they’re more steady hours. In terms of compensation, you won’t make what a senior partner makes. Coming in, it can be comparable to the level you’re at in a firm but the changes are more incremental.

What do lawyers bring to business?
Legal training teaches you how to think, to be analytical and articulate. It teaches you how to get your point across. It’s great communications training. These are all critical skills in a corporate environment. Lawyers also bring diversity to the thinking of the leadership team.

What special skills set in-house lawyers apart from those working at a firm?
You better understand the business. When I was building our internal legal team, I recall our investment bankers liked going to external counsel. The guy I hired to do the work internally knew the business well. The investment bankers were skeptical. Soon after, one of the executives said to the management team, “this guy’s the real deal, he knows our business.” That’s what matters to them.

There seems to be a growing number of lawyersturned- executives here and in the United States. Why do you think that is?
I believe it’s because legal training is a skill. As a corporate lawyer you learn about many businesses and get to understand them well. So, you have opportunities to leverage that experience. I also think that the ability to balance career goals with life goals makes it appealing.

What advice do you have for young lawyers looking to go in-house?
Get trained really well at the large law firms. Once you’re in-house, there’s just not the same level of training available.

What about for in-house lawyers looking to advance once they’re hired?
Really get to know the business because you need to be more than a lawyer — you need to be a strong advisor to really succeed.

This story is part of our in-depth guide to in-house counsel. Click here to read the next section for how to talk like a CEO. 

Image by Dave Worley