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The road not taken (as much) the path back into private practice…

Over the past decade, as businesses have sought to cut costs by internalising their legal work, in-house legal teams have seen significant growth and private practice firms have lost some strong lawyers to their in-house competition and sometimes clients! You yourself may have made the move in-house and, if not, may know friends or colleagues that have moved to what is perceived as, the ‘light side.’ However, as the private practice market continues to improve, we are seeing more and more lawyers transitioning back.

The reasons for moving in-house are pretty apparent and often have immediate effect whereas the reasons for moving back into private practice are often best viewed in the longer term. Those looking to move in-house cite time recording, billing targets and long hours at law firms as significant factors influencing their thinking. The move also suits those that enjoy working alongside non-lawyers and being close to the business, having an involvement in key business decisions. What we hear about less often are the reasons for making the move back into, or for others, their first move into private practice. For every benefit, there is always a trade off and the key is figuring out what you want from your career in the long term.

When working in-house the size and structure of the team can affect your ability to climb the career ladder. Sometimes candidates find that the structures of internal legal teams can be fairly flat, which makes progression difficult. If you find yourself in that situation you have two options; consider leaving to secure a more senior position elsewhere or perhaps look into your options in private practice. Within private practice the career path is well trodden, from associate right through to equity partner, generally speaking you will know what you need to achieve to hit that big career milestone. Whereas junior and mid level lawyers often earn more in-house, after about seven years’ post qualification experience the gap has usually significantly narrowed and in fact you may find that your salary has started to get a little out of kilter with colleagues you left behind in private practice. The earning potential of equity partners is high with equity partners at top national firms taking home between £299,000 and £700,000 per annum and those at the top of equity earning a staggering £1,500,000 (outside of London) however the path to partnership is by no means an easy one, particularly if networking and business development are not your thing, without these skills you are unlikely to attain it. In that case, a life without time recording and billing pressures coupled with relatively decent working hours and often more flexibility in terms of remote working and hours mean that the life of an in-house lawyer is the natural choice.

Money isn’t the only motivator, other reasons we often hear from candidates wanting to move back into private practice is that they want to develop their hard technical skills and benefit from more structured training and development. Others are concerned that their specialism is being watered down as they take on more generalist roles in-house.

For firms considering the appointment of in-house lawyers, there are a number of factors which they will take into account; length of time in-house vs private practice, how specialised/generalist your role has been in-house, lack of experience working to financial targets and working across departments on deals to name just a few. However, you also bring with you considerable advantages; a greater commercial awareness from working close to the business and often being involved in key decisions, an ability to work with non-lawyers and communicate more effectively with clients and also being a potential link to that business in terms of having work outsourced to your new firm! A stint in-house makes your CV more interesting but for those that are more senior and have been out of private practice for over about five years the move back may prove harder. The most desirable in-house candidates are those at the two to six year post qualification level that have focused on commercial contracts/IT/IP and banking and that have managed to maintain their specialism without being drawn into too much generalist work.

If you do wish to consider a move back into private practice, now is probably the ideal time. Most of the leading law firms are recruiting into their commercial and banking teams and your in-house experience in these sectors is highly regarded. As Robert Frost put it, taking the road ‘less travelled’ can sometimes make ‘all the difference.’

If you would like a confidential discussion regarding your next career move within the Birmingham market, please contact Angharad Warren at BCL Legal. Angharad specialises in the placement of lawyers into Birmingham’s leading commercial firms.

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