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2014. How is it shaping up so far for in-house lawyers?

It is not half bad. After recently returning to the legal market, having taken time out to have my second baby, I found myself both shocked and pleasantly surprised to see such positive changes. When I left my former employer, back in summer 2012 and hot footed it to the dizzy heights of North London, the economic situation and in house legal market that I left behind, was frankly, depressing. The Eurozone was threatening break up and fiscal woes thwarted growth in Western economies, resulting in a very subdued in house legal market indeed.

Throughout 2013, it was not much better. I watched it from home, feeling smug and secure in my ‘baby bubble.’ However, as we approached the end of the year things started to shift, both at home – as my baby entered the crazy crawling phase, and away, where I saw the legal market gently start to edge its way forward too.

At the beginning of 2014 I left the comfort of my North London idyll behind and returned to the market and a new business, with slight trepidation, if I am honest. I need not have been concerned because I have witnessed a significant and welcome shift on many levels. Western economies seem set to become solid performers once again and the feeling is much more upbeat. Better than this, the reality confirms this.

Since January 2014, we have either been directly involved, tracked and registered 385 UK based in house roles across commerce & industry. This represents a 35% increase on the number of roles over the same period last year in 2013.

Without a doubt, the focus appears to be on growth, albeit cautious, rather than survival mode and the in house market in 2014 already appears to be offering the best opportunities for in house counsel that it has been able to offer in the last six years. Companies across the board are demonstrating a strong interest and desire to save costs by ceasing to rely on expensive external counsel and are beginning to invest in growing and developing expertise in house.

Other changes that I have witnessed include the introduction and application of ‘ABS’ alternative business structures – meaning that some legal services face commoditisation. Telecoms giant, BT is just one of the companies that have joined the ‘rush’ to turn part of its legal team into a profit centre, thanks to the vision of its Global General Counsel, Dan Fitz. In short, multinationals are investing in developing a greater degree of knowledge and expertise in house, so that they can execute more work from within and pay close attention to the ever present issue of cost. This is potentially good news for ‘in housers’.

Corporate governance has continued to take shape as regulatory regimes continue to tighten and businesses, not just restricted to the banking and finance and sectors, exercise scrutiny and caution in all their actions. This increased regulation, much of which has come from the US, has hit the UK and especially Europe and in turn creates more opportunities.

Europe. European legislation is constantly pushing boundaries on what it means to be ‘legal.’ So much so that it is difficult to talk about English law and roles focused purely on the UK market. Happily, borders have continued to be broken down and internationally qualified and experienced lawyers are often the first in line for some of the choicest roles available, since they are able to move seamlessly from one country to the next.

Having said all of this, of course many General Counsel are still proceeding with caution, especially in terms of the short term legal recruitment requirements of their business. We have witnessed a definite increase in more high quality fixed term and temporary contract positions becoming available. The reason behind this is to cover an absence, for example a maternity leave, but often times, it gives the General Counsel some breathing space and provides an opportunity to review legal departments, examine budgets and costs before committing to a permanent hire.

What does all this mean for you?

The changing legal landscape means that our working environment is becoming far more complex and although there are many opportunities for in house counsel across most industry sectors, the number of lawyers opting for life in house, versus the number of opportunities available is not equal. This has resulted in fierce competition and something of a bottle neck at the senior end.

How should we respond? Adaptability is key. Over the last 5 or 6 years we have witnessed changes in international, economic, political and regulatory regimes and this will continue to shape what we do and how we do it. How we react is crucial. Now is the time to master that language, to fine tune specialist skills, request a secondment outside of the UK and to reach out and grab management responsibilities. It is definitely the time to update and perfect your CV and make a small number of targeted and well thought out approaches.

If you are able to understand the market you are operating in and you can respond to it quickly, demonstrating a willingness to develop your technical and softer skills and an openness to cultural sensitivities, then you should be able to capitalise on the opportunities presented and maximise your career potential.

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a warm and supportive relationship with many of you over the years and to share your passion for building in house legal teams and developing careers. If you would like my help again, or you would like to make contact for the first time, kindly get in touch to discuss any aspect of your career, your team’s development or if you are interested in simply extending your network.

Rachael North is Director, In House. She can be contacted on + 44 (0) 203 651 5718 or rachaelnorth@bcllegal.com

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