There comes a point in every legal professional’s career where the move from legal practice to in-house is considered. The most recent Law Society report documents in-house practice as “the fastest growing sector in the Legal profession” with lawyers working in-house making up around 25% of the solicitors’ profession (The Law society: Annual statistics report 2021). Yet private practice as a profession still dominates. So why are lawyers still afraid to make the jump?
Many feel it’s still too early in their careers to consider the change. While traditionally lawyers have waited a few years before considering a move to in-house, we’re seeing this change, with an increasing number of young professionals entering the sector upon qualification: “there is a growing contingent of junior lawyers who train and qualify into in-house practice without ever having felt the need to experience life in private practice”(The Law Society gazette: 2023 when to make the move in-house). Below, we explore how in-house differs to the traditional environment of legal practice, as well as what it entails and whether making the move makes sense.
While there are a myriad of differences between the two specialisms, one of the most evident is the distance between the lawyer and the client. Working in-house means working on the inside. In-house lawyers have an innately better understanding of the business strategy because they’re a tangible part of the organisation they represent. They “develop detailed knowledge about the organisation to a greater degree than may be possible for external lawyers who are instructed reactively on specific matters, usually for a particular area of the business. This knowledge and proximity to [the] client are part of their value as an in-house lawyer” (The Centre for Legal Leadership: Working in-house – how different is it from private practice?).
When analysing what makes a successful legal enterprise, Forbes emphasise the importance of a “’we’ more than ‘me’ mindset” (Forbes: 2023 The Legal industry is not prepared for career diversification), there’s never a risk of isolation with in-house practice because the distance between the professional and the business is simply not there. This lack of distance also affords a streamlining of the sign-off process; in-house professionals can expect a faster-paced, more efficient environment.
Alongside this, working in-house usually means being part of a small team within a larger company, and a smaller team spells more scope for the individual. In-house lawyers often handle an array of legal issues from a variety of angles. This is especially beneficial for the newly-graduated, “not only [does this] let graduates develop practical legal skills and understanding; [it] allows for the integration of business acumen and other skill savviness”(Inview: Consider making the move in-house earlier in your career). Working on a diversity of legal areas is an efficient way for lawyers at any point in their careers to broaden their skills horizon.
What does it take?
Communication - An accomplished in-house lawyer is an adept communicator. Unlike the insular environment of a law firm, the environment of an in-house lawyer is a mixed one. This means in-house lawyers will often be called to keep colleagues outside of the legal profession updated on relevant legal matters that affect the wider business. Whether it’s advising on regulation compliance or commercial issues, in-house lawyers need to be able to effectively convert technical legal jargon to more accessible language, so that all parties are informed and able to move the business forward.
Adaptability – The role of an in-house lawyer is incredibly variable. Some work as part of a legal team, others find themselves as sole counsel. To add to that, the culture of one organisation can vary wildly from another; those wanting to transition from the legal practice to in-house law need to be prepared for a considerable shift in work environment and working style.
Confidence – Linking to the above, working as sole counsel in a small, private equity funded start-up surrounded by inexperienced nonlegal colleagues is a far cry from being part of a fifty-strong team of specialised lawyers in an established firm. The legal theory may be the same, but little else will be, so those making the change need to have the confidence to step in to whatever environment or role they find themselves in. That said, professionals can always vet a potential organisation. If in-house is the next step but sole council is too much of a jump, find a team.
Is it worth it?
One of the main sources of hesitation for those looking to transition is salary. While traditionally viewed as less lucrative, in-house salaries are in fact often on par with private practice, particularly for junior to mid-level lawyers. Even when private practice does eclipse in-house with pay, reports show junior lawyers at some firms clock in an average of 14-hour days, so when large salaries are broken down, the hourly rate is often smaller than expected (Legal cheek: Revealed: the extreme working hours of big-paying US law firms in London). Additionally, the packages that come with in-house work (such as pension schemes, share options and generous bonuses) are often overlooked, but shouldn’t be.
The often gruelling long days of legal practice are hugely contrasted by the better work life balance in-house affords. Saying goodbye to the path to partner may mean rejecting a sizeable salary, but it certainly means a friendlier working style, “The long hours demanded of solicitors in commercial private practice is often enough to provoke interest in an alternative career, even if that means giving up the dream of financial bounty associated with partnership at the top firms”(Lawcareers: Alternative careers in and around the law).
Lastly, the opportunity for career advancement is readily available to in-house legal professionals. Working as a sole counsel, for example, often comes with the opportunity to grow a legal team and explore a more managerial role. The many commercial skills an in-house lawyer accumulates can be put to use in developing a business plan, broadening the role of the professional and opening the door to advancement. With built-up commercial experience, in-house lawyers may also choose to move between business sectors, some even find appeal in purely commercial roles that take them away from the law and into a business-centred position. The opportunities are broad, and as a result in-house lawyers report a generally higher satisfaction rating, with 72% finding their skills and abilities are well utilised (The Law Society: 2023 The results are in: how do solicitors feel about their profession?).
For advice on your next move, speak to an IDEX Legal professional today.