Lena Ernlund Malmberg, former head of legal IP, Nilfisk

Former head of legal IP at Nilfisk, Lena Ernlund Malmberg, warns against separating diversity from company culture, and highlights the systemic factors that allow in-house departments to be more diverse than law firms.

‘Diversity’ can become a pop phenomenon, a buzzword. What you need to do, if you are going to talk about it, is also to walk to the talk. You have to live it instead of communicating it all the time. I think it’s more important to look, in the strategic sense, at the person behind the ‘diversity’. It’s much more about whether that person is doing what the business needs.

I did not leave a law firm because I am a woman and I have had babies and I wanted to work less, but that is very often the way choosing an in-house career is looked upon. There is this idea that if you are a woman working in a law firm then you want to work a little bit less once you have children. But in my situation it was quite simple: I changed to the in-house role because I wanted to explore in-house life. In addition, there is often a view that in-house lawyers are those who were not cut out to be partners.

But when you approach in-house life the same two reasons are usually given: firstly, people move because they want to try a commercial way of applying legal knowledge and be close to a business − digging their hands into the dirt and seeing what’s out there across a company besides the core legal challenges. You are much more a generalist, a business partner, when you’re in-house, while you are more of a specialist when you’re at a law firm, and basically that is what you go for. Diversity per se is not that big of a deal here; it’s more what kind of professional life you want to have, and how you want to work with law − not whether you are a woman or a man. Secondly, to work differently – usually not less – but differently.


Of course there is some truth about having a work-life balance in-house but personally I work just as much now as I did when I was at a law firm; I think I maybe work even more. But I work differently. I’ve always known that one day I wanted to go in-house, to experience corporate life. And maybe, just maybe, women want that more often. The flexibility has something to do with it, but I think most men want flexibility just as much as women. Of course, a lot of women will have one or two maternity leaves, but that does not make them less career-focused. I’m just as career-focused as any man you will meet. And I also know a lot of men who leave law firms – maybe because they want to have more time with their kids or maybe just to pursue the in-house life. It may actually be that simple.

Many law firms have a rather one-sided approach to employee performance and have not really embraced the importance of genuine diversity storytelling. Some promote themselves as being ‘young’ law firms for having a young managing partner or a young CFO. Law firms have to attract the very talented and highly educated young people directly from university. The approach is: you don’t attract young women or young men directly out of university by saying ‘We have this many employees with disabilities, this many employees with foreign backgrounds or this many employees above 50.’ That’s not a selling point for that target group. The idea is that you can sell material stuff, a great working environment and the concept of a well-developed career path. You have to promote ‘the young stuff’ to get the young lawyers in. However, no matter which selling points you want to apply, it all boils down to whether it is actually just a ‘good story’ or whether said firm wants to ‘stir things up’ and actually embrace the culture itself. Instead of putting too much focus on the ‘sales speech’, fully living the storytelling and embracing the company culture would be major steps. And eventually it will sell itself.


Law firms always count billable hours, and the older you get, the more senior you are, so the more expensive are your hours. But in-house counsel appointing external support very often just need assistance with things they don’t have time to do themselves. On a day-to-day basis you don’t need very expensive, senior specialists. Instead, you need a team that understands your core business needs, thereby making the external team a part of your business.

In my view, you could change a lot of things about diversity in law firms if you simply changed the approach to those billable hours. The focus should be less on increasing costs based on seniority and contribution ratio; putting a whole different theme/determining parameter to those billable hours so that they don’t change that much from junior associate to partner level. It should be task-focused instead – looking at the business values of the deliverables made to the customer. Customer, not client.


Nilfisk is in every way an international company. I travel quite a lot, but I also work at home when needed. There are office hours when they expect you to be available, but the flexibility within that is amazing. Sometimes physical presense is needed but with colleagues located all over the world, emails, telephones and Skype dial-in are truly essential tools. Sometimes I even go and pick up my kids early from kindergarten and I simply say ‘I’m going to leave early today and work late tonight.’ I have never been questioned about that as long as I deliver on time. I guess that’s a core difference from a law firm, where it is usually expected that you are physically present at the office during office hours. But I often wonder why this office presence is still so vital. I think law firms need to look into that before looking into anything to do with ‘diversity’ – for example, women leaving in favour of the in-house life. I strongly believe that if law firms reflected their customers a bit more, adding a greater level of flexibility, then ‘diversity’ would no longer be this mythical phenomenon. In general, if you’re flexible, allow people to go and pick up their kids from school and work via different platforms, I bet you that most employees (men or women) will not have any problem with opening their laptop at night when the kids are asleep. I think it’s a whole different issue than diversity – really it’s a matter of changing culture.

I spent my early years as an attorney at a top tier law firm. I got one of the best educations I could get and I absolutely loved working there. But from the very beginning I also knew that some day I wanted to try out the in-house life. In fact, I truly believe that the combination of law firm and in-house experience makes me a much better lawyer. And if I was ever to return to a law firm, I am fully confident that I would be a much better adviser now than I was before. Also, with the flexibility I have been granted by Nilfisk, I know that the company is using me and what I am good at for the benefit of the business. I am a hard-working woman, and if you give me just a little bit of flexibility, I will give you tonnes in return.