There are many reasons why solicitors in private practice may find themselves attracted to a move in-house. Some of the facets known to fuel this move include the prospect of taking on a more commercial role, contributing to business strategy and enjoying more fluid progression. Many solicitors, particularly in transactional roles, are often keen to move in-house to see the full life cycle of deals and products, allowing them to go beyond advising on black letter law when working with senior stakeholders. Furthermore, the move in-house holds an appeal as it promises an improved work/life balance, increased flexibility and, of course, a way to bid farewell to billable hours.
While there is no disputing the popularity of a move in-house, there are a lot of questions that I get asked as an in-house legal recruiter with regards to the patterns I see in this move and the most successful ways to do it. Even though there are no definitive answers to some of these questions, my conversations with candidates over the past 2.5 years have provided me with a perspective to offer insight into some. Below is a list of the most prevalent of these questions and my answers to them:
1) Which practice areas usually can or cannot move in-house?
Most in-house roles tend to be suited to commercial lawyers with expertise drafting, reviewing, and negotiating commercial contracts. There are roles suited to corporate M&A lawyers, capital markets and litigation lawyers across sectors, as well as banking and finance lawyers at financial institutions. IP lawyers usually have a plethora of opportunities in the life sciences space. Data protection and privacy professionals doing non-contentious work will also have roles available to them.
Commercial and residential property lawyers, property litigators, contentious insurance lawyers, pensions lawyers, competition lawyers and projects, energy and infrastructure lawyers can sometimes also find roles in-house; however, it is worth being aware that these will be much fewer and further between. I’ve even placed a private client solicitor in-house, but in 2.5 years only seen one such role come up. Roles for litigation and competition lawyers will often only be at the big FTSE companies, and property roles at smaller organisations.
Overall, most practice areas will have opportunities in-house, but it’s worth being aware that the majority of in-house roles are non-contentious and catered towards commercial lawyers. This is to say that individuals in more niche practice areas might want to consistently keep an eye out for positions, as opposed to waiting until they’re ready to move – because the right role might not then be waiting for them. Take the right opportunity when it arises.
2) When is the best time to make the move in-house?
While there is no hard-and-fast rule to the best time to move in-house, many of the moves I see occur between the 2 – 5 PQE level. I’ve moved people in-house from NQ upwards, but generally the pattern is that moving in-house earlier can be a bit easier. Moving between NQ – 2 PQE can be hit-or-miss depending on the learning and development support offered by the company the individual goes to. However, especially for solicitors hitting the 2 – 3 PQE mark who have a strong grounding in practice and built-up confidence in their technical expertise, which is often the preference for companies hiring, moving in-house can be very beneficial before they progress too far in practice and find the move too discrepant to what they’re used to.
Past ‘Senior Associate’ level, many candidates find it hard to move in-house due to lower pay and shift in mindset. Employers might also be reticent to hire senior candidates with no familiarity with the in-house environment, unless they have substantial secondment experience. Almost no individuals at ‘Partner’ level will move in-house for this reason, instead going into freelance consultancy instead.
3) What is it important to consider when picking the right company to move in-house to?
What are your priorities in this move? – This is a question I always ask candidates when speaking with them because it will heavily influence the companies they can or cannot transition to.
• Work/life balance? Go for a larger company in a softer sector with good legal infrastructure. Most in-house companies offer a comparatively better work/life balance to private practice but transitioning to an SME pharmaceutical company that is actively growing or a private equity firm will not necessarily mean never working past 6 pm. Generally, the smaller the legal function is, the more the need to be flexible around hours and work more as a comprehensive generalist. Being a sole counsel or in a team of 2 or 3 can be a fantastic learning opportunity, laying the groundwork to becoming a future General Counsel.
• Being part of the strategic decision-making? If you can afford to take a bit of a risk, consider a smaller company or even a start-up, it might just pay off. Smaller and more innovative companies with legal teams will often give you the opportunity to work directly with senior stakeholders and get you closer to the commercial beating heart of the organisation.
• Learning and development opportunities? This will depend on which stage of your career you are in. Either way, you will want to ensure that there is a clear and achievable development programme and the infrastructure in place to help you achieve your full potential. Having this and more experience team member to report to/learn from is cited as an important factor for junior lawyers moving in-house.
• Progression? Go for a mid-sized or growing team in a more fluid business. This means avoiding large and structured entities where there is a lot of competition and little room to step up (e.g., your big retail banks or large pharma). Go somewhere that you know there is succession planning or more flexibility to move up quicker with a less stringent hierarchy.
4) How do compensation packages look in-house?
Salaries in-house vary depending on the sector you move to. Financial services pay at the upper end of market rate compared to mainstream commerce & industry. Sectors such as FMCG, retail, even tech can pay at the lower end of base salaries (though some tech companies will give equity within their overall packages). Outside of financial services, pharmaceuticals tend to offer competitive pay. Benefits packages usually consist of an annual bonus, 25-30 days holiday, pension contributions, private medical cover and sometimes a car allowance.
5) What qualities do in-house counsel look for when hiring from private practice? Another question heavily dependent on level: Usually, all in-house companies will look for lawyers with experience in the relevant practice area (at the junior level, at least 6 months) and then build on that base. For 0 – 3 PQE lawyers moving in-house, softer skills such as enthusiasm to learn and proactivity can make a big difference, especially if someone has not had the chance to go on secondment and get to grips with the in-house environment.
Overall, commerciality continues to be a key quality employers look for, as a move in-house means interacting very closely with a range of stakeholders. The person will need to be adaptable and personable – that element of ‘culture fit’ comes in here. Especially in smaller teams, not only does teamwork and fit become more important, but many lawyers will have to pick-up anything and everything that lands on the desk, and showing a keen attitude to do that and learn can make a big difference.
6) Does the move in-house eliminate the option of ever going back to private practice?
Whilst law has always been a traditional profession and in the past moving in-house would have meant eliminating the possibility of going back to practice, this is no longer the case. I’ve seen some fantastic lawyers go in-house, even do 12-month contracts, and then go back into international or US law firms. When the market becomes more candidate-driven, practices are more open-minded and see the benefit of individuals who have been in-house, allowing them back in. This is to say that I always encourage candidates not to think of a move in-house as the end of their practice career, but a welcome change that can broaden their experience and benefit them in the longer term.