Many have misconceptions about the nature of in-house legal practice which has led to various myths. It makes sense that there are distinctions between in-house roles and private practice positions, however there are also numerous similarities between the two, as well as advantages that can make in-house a more desirable career path. In-house is constantly changing, so it is helpful to have some knowledge and research available about what to anticipate from such a diverse market.
The area of the legal industry with the quickest growth is in-house practice, with about 22% of the legal profession being in-house Legal Counsels. The number of registered in-house solicitors is estimated to be 31,000, up nearly threefold over the past 20 years, according to the Law Society's Annual Statistics Report 2019. This group is mostly made up of lawyers who previously worked in private practice and moved, yet private practice as a profession still dominates, and lawyers can be afraid to make the jump. Myths have become wide-spread and can damage the in-house reputation, so let’s just a few well-known myths before moving onto the real challenges often faced during the move, and how to avoid them.
1. In-house doesn’t pay well
First things first, this isn’t always the case. Just as there is variation in pay between regional high street firms and large international or American law firms, there is a difference between the pay at smaller national companies to large international or conglomerate organisation. The same can be said between sectors, with financial services and technology roles often being the highest paid in-house, whereas in private practice this is often corporate roles, as well as financial services and banking. It’s important to look at the market rate for your experience, using resources like salary guides to advise you, and this may help you make a decision about where you would fit best.
However, it is true that some law firms will pay better than some in-house roles. Solicitors are the money-making entities of law firms, so this is often reflected in the salaries of the highest earning firms. What is key to address is that you could be judging this on the face of a package at the base salary, without taking into account the packages’ full value. In-house may include other incentives, such as a guaranteed bonus, shares, car allowances, pension schemes, discounts, and more. When taking these parts into consideration, the value may be closer to private practice than you think.
More than this though, there are benefits to an in-house role worth deliberating in exchange for a slightly lower pay. According to a poll conducted by Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU), 71% of respondents felt that their job had a detrimental effect on their mental health. Long hours and a lack of balance with your social and personal life is often attributed as an aggravating factor to this discontent in the legal field. In-house has a reputation for providing a better work-life balance, a better working environment, and a healthier working life. Although trainee lawyers in private practice may have greater earning potential at points, you must be ready to put in more gruelling hours. Surveys have found that junior lawyers at some US law firms are working an average of 14-hour days, so when large salaries are broken down, your hourly rate may be smaller than expected. Since law firms put their clients first, it is expected that your personal and social life will take a back seat, which isn’t always sustainable.
2. There isn’t as much career progression or opportunity in-house as there is in private practice
Private practice is well known for a structured training and development programme based on companywide policies and quantifiable post qualification experience. This can be beneficial in the sense that it is predictable and follows a laid-out process. However, the downside to this can be its rigidity. There can be less opportunity for client exposure or responsibility in the early stages of your career, and those that progress quickly are often held back from promotions by red tape and rules. A high staff turnover may be giving a false narrative to the speed at which individuals move within the ranks.
In-house teams are often much less hierarchical, meaning exposure and responsibility opportunities are countless, and you will consistently be collaborating with senior stakeholders and c-suite individuals. You are expected to chip into all issues within the team, be proactive, and add value wherever you can. Lateral movements across departments in the business are often encouraged to gain more broad experience and those that are progressing quickly will find their success reflected in their career path.
In smaller teams and businesses there is the fear of hitting a glass ceiling and being unable to progress unless your manager leaves. In those smaller teams this can sometimes be the case, however the beauty of in-house in these situations that smaller private practice teams may lack, is there are often other avenues available, such as hybrid legal roles and building new teams, which keep your career progressing and evolving.
3. I’m too early/late to move from private practice now
There is no PQE sweet spot in which to make the move. The in-house transition is available to any lawyer that is interested. The market has an opportunity for each level and there is always something you can bring to the table. What’s important to keep in mind is to be flexible. In-house opportunities are not as black and white as private practice, there is more to consider that you will need to research in order to make the most informed and logical decision. Be open to considering new avenues and exploring your interests, make use of this newfound flexibility in order to mould the perfect opportunity for yourself, and make sure you ask the right questions.
4. You have to do everything in an in-house team
Worries around this myth are usually two-fold; the first being the perceived lack of junior support in the team, and the second being the idea that specialism isn’t welcome or needed in the in-house space. It’s helpful to revisit at this point that the size of the company is important to what the opportunity will look like. Bigger organisations will have more junior support and more need for specialisms. If both are suited to what you’re looking for, then focusing on these roles will help you find the right one. The size of the team is most crucial in terms of considering the junior support; there is no work around for this. You will need to get stuck into a wider range in level of work if your team is smaller, but this correlates the same everywhere, whether in-house or a law firm, and there is an opportunity suited to everyone.
For specialisms, there is more variation. It’s true that bigger teams are more likely to need specialised roles, but there are smaller teams that can have this demand. This is where the sector and type of company can influence the kind of law they will be dealing with day to day. In-house lawyers are about supporting/enabling company strategy and saving the company money on their legal spending, when broken down to its base. If they need help with litigation day in and day out, they will want to stop paying externally for this service, regardless of their team size. This is where research will help you map the industry and reveal your place in it. There will always be a more varied aspect to an in-house role, which comes with working towards common business goals, rather than billing targets. However, the business will frequently be purchasing from its in-house lawyers their in-depth specialised legal knowledge, earned through specialised private practice training, this will always have value.
5. You’re moving away from a purely legal role
This may seem the case even where it isn’t, because there is one huge change that hangs over a move to in-house…you now only have one client. This comes with a level of involvement that was likely not available before. It isn’t necessarily a move away from black letter law and technical legal work, but it needs a more commercial thought process in order to bridge the gap between the legal team and the rest of the business. It will give you the opportunity to be involved from start to finish, without needing to be brought in only once there is a problem. It often means more practical solutions, allowing you to feel very connected to your work and its impact, and bring satisfaction that may have been missing before. Your legal skills become valuable to the business for more than just putting out fires as quickly as possible, it gives you a chance to influence operations with your expertise and prevent the need for external counsel in the first place. There is also more choice if you are interested in moving to a more quasi-legal role, opening more doors, and giving you experience you can build on to move into this if you want to. In-house specialists are well-positioned to gain knowledge in protecting the reputation of an organisation as strategic business partners. Complicated challenges connected to risk, compliance, and governance are frequently an integral part of daily operations.
The real challenge:
Now that we’ve address the myths, let’s move on to some of the real-life issues faced in the transition to your first in-house role. There is necessary adjustment due to a change in environment, but they’re not as drastic as you may think, with many solutions available to help. What these issues hinge around is moving away from the billable hours’ lifestyle. In a private practice firm, your value to the team is clearly set out and tracked, and an efficient legal approach is desirable. You are surrounded by legal individuals and your purpose is clear.
In a business, the company does not revolve around your team’s collective worth. It can be more difficult to integrate into the company’s goals and find your place. What’s important to remember is that you are now expected to communicate across the business, bringing that advice, reframed and focused into a commercial approach, to those that can implement and use it. Make sure you research and understand what a successful day looks like in alignment with that organisation’s values and policies. Ask, communicate, and envision how you could best support each department. Taking on responsibility and getting stuck in are incredibly valued actions in-house. Your technical legal skills are likely what got you the position, but your ability to adapt and utilise those soft skills in your arsenal are what will keep you there.
If you are thinking about making the move, good luck on finding the right fit. Use every resource available, and feel free to reach out if you would like further market information or guidance.