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Why private practice isn’t so bad

I have been reading with interest the special features in The Lawyer (6th October and 8th December 2014) about working in-house. The pieces give an insight into the adjustments lawyers need to make when they transition across from private practice to in house and what they wished they’d known before making the move.

When I was in private practice myself, working in house was always the dream. No billing targets, no chargeable time targets, no hideous networking breakfasts with a bunch of losers you know you aren’t going to get any work from. No row of clocks on your computer screen recording your six minute units and no debates over whether you can justify charging all that time to one little issue that you’ve only raised in order to CYA (cover your ar*e). And then there’s the work/life balance thing. Private practice lawyers imagine that in-house lawyers roll in at 9:30, have a cuppa whilst checking Facebook or Sky News depending on their level of maturity and whether they have a life, breeze through the day and then toddle off home in their expensive cars (as they are so well paid) for an evening of relaxing indulgence, whilst their private practice brethren get on the pro plus and crack on with some heavy duty drafting, before the 11pm conference call with some yanks.

However, now that I am older and wiser, and cover private practice recruitment, I don’t think going in house is necessarily the right fit for everyone. Don’t get me wrong, some lawyers go in house and love it, vowing never to set foot in a law firm ever again. But here’s a look at some of the advantages to staying in private practice:

1 In private practice you are a profit centre meaning that you can go to the photocopying department (or some lowly paralegal), slap some files down and demand that they be photocopied immediately. It will get done because you are a fee earner and therefore a VIP. When you go in house you become a ‘cost,’ having to justify exactly what value you are adding to the business.
2 Whilst the dosh might be good as a junior in-house lawyer, they have a less defined career path. They can’t go from associate, to senior associate to legal director to partner like private practice lawyers. In house legal teams tend to have a fairly flat structure and this often goes hand in hand with corresponding flat salaries. In private practice, not only do you have a clearly defined career path, your salary increases with your status.
3 In house lawyers usually have less resources (think of all the precedents that you can bring up to cover almost every scenario in private practice) and have less people to turn to for help. When a client calls you to ask a tricky question, in private practice you can usually tell the client you need to check a couple of things, put the phone down and then run round the office panicking, asking anyone who’ll listen to help you (and occasionally, offloading the hospital pass to one of your poor colleagues, or better still a snivelling trainee). As an in house lawyer, you are there on site all the time. It’s not so easy to buy time or get help from an array of different specialists in your office as you can in private practice. That’s unless of course you work for a huge company that uses a panel of solicitors for their specialist advice. Then you can lord it up with your external advisors and let them sweat on it!

So, perhaps instead of thinking in house is the only way forward, think of it as a potential option to be explored but also keep an open mind on private practice opportunities that might provide you with a better work/life balance, more client contact or less networking breakfast opportunities!

For more information please contact Georgina Inson or visit our website BCL Legal.

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