Navigating your career as an in-house lawyer
Many private practice lawyers are intrigued by the world of in-house legal, and many students and trainees want to work out the best route for their legal career: in-house or private practice?
At the outset of your career, there are so many questions and points to consider before you decide what's best for you; the same can be said for private practice lawyers who want to make a move.
Who's this guide for?
This guide is useful for graduates contemplating the direction of their legal career to practising in-house lawyers at any PQE level. You'll find answers to questions relating to:
Newly qualified lawyers
Private practice lawyers who are interested in moving in-house
In-house lawyers who want to progress their career
In-house lawyers considering a move
In-house lawyers interested in temporary employment
What you'll learn
For those who don't yet practise as an in-house lawyer, this guide will teach you about the ins and outs of the role in an effort for you to learn whether this career path is the right one for you.
For practising in-house lawyers, you'll learn how to develop your career and work out whether you're being paid enough and/or receiving the right benefits.
It goes without saying that there are many differences between in-house and private practice, but equally, the nature of in-house legal work is heavily dependant on the sector you work in and the role itself.
Generally speaking, an in-house lawyer looks after the legal needs of the company they work for. Once again, this varies depending on the type of company and company sector.
The legal work involved relates to the business entity itself e.g. contracts (contract law), and the business’s activity e.g. transactions including acquisitions (corporate law). Depending on the size of the company, international law may also apply.
Ultimately, an in-house lawyer takes a commercial standpoint and balances legalities alongside this. In-house lawyers are on hand to advise while assessing risk and cost to the business.
Whether you’re a sole legal counsel or part of an in-house team, you’re the main and first point of contact for legal queries from all angles; you’re likely to have a constant flow of questions to answer and other requests that require immediate attention.
Practising as an in-house lawyer comes with its own advantages and challenges. In-house lawyers who love their job enjoy the variety involved in looking after a company’s diverse legal matters.
Practising as an in-house lawyer is more generalist than a private practice role. As opposed to specialising in a particular field and passing work on to other departments, if something falls outside your area of expertise, you’re required to apply the law to a broader range of issues. As stated above, in addition to applying the law to the legal problems at hand, you must have an understanding of the commercial consequences of your legal advice.
An in-house lawyer is expected to train their non-lawyer colleagues – including HR and sales staff – on any legal updates that have a direct impact on the running of the business.
An in-house lawyer might have to cover for colleagues or undertake a secondment to a different division within the business i.e. to work on a special project.
An in-house lawyer is expected to make decisions in collaboration with the people who run the business directly, including managers and directors. Translation of the legal implications on any business decisions must be communicated in plain English. If the company’s plans are unworkable, you'll be relied upon to come up with a workable alternative.
Businesses are constantly changing so you need to have a flexible approach that enables you to adapt through change. Your working day will be unpredictable. An ability to make decisions in a high-pressured environment and perform to short deadlines is a must.
General counsel, legal director and some sole counsel-level legal appointments are commercial business roles that involve a significant amount of responsibility and involvement.
Like a finance or commercial director, the legal director/general counsel is often (or at least they should be) a board-level staff member, sitting at the table as a director in their own right or through a dual-position as company secretary.
At this level, you will:
Help shape and develop business strategy;
Ensure the company adheres to relevant laws and regulation (internal and external) in every territory the company operates within;
Be called upon to handle governance and compliance duties; and,
Be called upon for legal or commercial advice on a wide range of issues.
Alongside the vast array of day-to-day duties and responsibilities, an in-house lawyer is expected to:
Demonstrate commercial nous
Legal directors and general counsel are often a confidant to the board/senior stakeholders and a key player in dealing with regulators and other external parties.
In summary, they do much more than churning out legal work, and undoubtedly, they should be viewed on an equal footing alongside other senior department stakeholders.
No in-house legal role is the same as another.
The features of any in-house role will mainly depend on three things: the type of company you work for, the sector it’s in and the size of the legal team. For example, the company you work for could be a local start-up or it might be a global household name, or you might be a sole counsel or part of a team (small, medium or large).
However, there are always similarities: the prevailing is the fact an in-house solicitor offers guidance that influences the strategic direction of a business.
In addition, all in-house legal jobs are fast-paced; no matter the company or sector. Balancing and prioritising is an everyday feature of the role.
What are the main in-house legal sectors?
In-house lawyers work in every sector, including:
Banking and finance
Construction and property
Health and pharmaceutical
Professional and support services
What are the most popular in-house legal sectors?
Generally speaking, lawyers are attracted to big brands, retailers, football clubs and companies causing ‘disruption’ within their sector.
More specifically, a lot of lawyers who work or make the move in-house want to work in a service area or for a brand that resonates with them.
Sole counsel versus legal team
A sole counsel role is exciting - you have a lot of control over legal matters and you're able to do things your own way. Before stepping into a sole counsel role, it's important to have learned from others. Most lawyers moving into this position were afforded this opportunity previously.
One issue to think about is if you make the move to a sole counsel role at five years' PQE and look for your next role at eight to 10 years' PQE, the roles you apply for may require management experience. If you've not been part of a legal team, you won't possess this skill. You might carry seniority and business acumen, but risk missing out to other lawyers who have management experience.
What constitutes a small, medium or large legal in-house team?
Medium: six to 12
It's worth bearing in mind that even the largest in-house legal teams are small compared to the overall size of a business.
Most of the UK’s largest companies have an in-house lawyer. Some companies opt for an outsourced model - general counsel is responsible for managing both the relationship with the business and the legal costs. Other companies have built up legal functions to a significant size on a global scale – with circa 200+ lawyers.
If working as a sole counsel you'll often have a primary focus e.g. commercial contracts; but you may be asked to assist with employment matters, litigation, intellectual property - basically, anything that has a legal element to it.
Even if you're part of a legal team, you're still exposed to a variety of legal work and projects. As an example, office moves. Even as the 'commercial lawyer' you might be tasked with heading up the project team who's responsible for the move. You won't be expected to undertake internal property work but you'll be responsible for liaising with and managing the law firm the company's outsourced to.
No extra skills are needed to be successful in an in-house legal role, but the most equipped and those at an advantage, possess one or more of the below.
Strong communication skills
A majority of an in-house lawyers colleagues won't be lawyers so there's a need to communicate in layperson's terms; non-lawyers will not appreciate legalese.
An in-house lawyer often works as part of a project team with a variety of business professionals. It’s essential to work as part of a team to be effective; your colleagues won’t thank you for working in silo.
Working in-house isn't about completing the perfect legal job. A company doesn't make money when one contract is perfectly put together. Volume and efficiency is the name of the day.
As the saying goes, 'jack of all trades, master of none.' In-house lawyers are expected to dip into numerous areas of work/law and provide a commercial opinion.
The ability to prioritise is a must. In-house lawyers are on side with their commercial colleagues, focussing on where money can be made, not where the legal points can be won!
Many in-house lawyers will attest that, on the job, you're a businessperson first and a lawyer second. More specifically, a thorough understanding of the business: the way it operates, its culture and processes. This is key. Every business works differently as is its appetite to risk. An in-house lawyer can't add value until they understand the intricacies of the business.
Undertaking a training contract within an in-house legal team can be one of the best ways for an aspiring lawyer to develop their skills quickly. It provides an opportunity to develop a sector focus and understand one specific industry; on top of gaining legal knowledge and expertise.
Most in-house legal training contracts are at larger national and global companies - due to resource.
An in-house legal training contract is a completely different experience from private practice. They incorporate a focus on commercial awareness where there's more opportunity for business development.
In addition, you get to train alongside professionals from all different backgrounds.
The training itself
When it comes to the training itself, there's a lot of debate about whether it's lacking in an in-house position; that private practice affords more extensive training and development programmes. A lot of lawyers who trained in-house disagree with this, stating they're exposed to a higher level of work at such a junior stage. An in-house training contract usually means early client exposure.
Am I shooting myself in the foot if I decide to move into private practice after my training contract?
If anything, an in-house training contract puts you at an advantage when it comes to future job prospects - private practice or otherwise. Put simply, having the in-house experience provides you with sector knowledge and puts you in client shoes.
In addition to your legal learning, you're building commercial advisory skills. Sometimes, you might manage external legal spend.
Not only are many NQ lawyers curious to know about the prospects of moving in-house at this level, they’re also concerned about whether it’s wise to do so. Frequently asked questions include:
Will a move enhance or damage my long-term career plans?
What continuing professional development opportunities are available?
Is it hard to return to private practice if you find the in-house legal life isn’t for you?
The truth is: it depends. Your personal circumstances, aspirations and skill-set, as well as a particular in-house legal job role (if there is one), each hold a significant bearing on whether a move is good for you or not. There’s no right or wrong answer.
Initially, you have to be certain that a move in-house is a good move for you personally, which is hard to establish if previous experience is non-existent. This being said, experience – in this case – isn’t restricted to in-house legal alone.
Typically, it helps to have some experience in one or more of the following areas:
An in-house environment (legal or otherwise)
A secondment at a client
A previous career in business
NQs who can tick off one or all of the above will have a deeper understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of in-house legal work. If your background doesn’t encompass any of the above and you’re adamant the in-house route is for you, then it’s time to gather as much information as possible; be inquisitive.
Talking to other in-house lawyers is a great start. If this isn’t possible, an effective way to get a feel for the work is to read interviews with those who do it on a daily basis. There are many resources out there – a valuable research and due diligence tool.
While many individuals like the sense of integration and working closely to a business, this isn’t the case for everyone; working in/with multi-disciplinary teams, is a more exposed way of offering legal advice.
In addition, don’t forget to think about the practicalities. If an in-house role for a newly qualified or junior lawyer arises, it’s important to find out more about the nuts and bolts of the job. For example, a larger legal team may offer a higher level of support due to dispersed time capacity from the various legal team members. On the flip side, this might mean you’re given all the lower-level work and kept away from interesting deals.
Equally, a small legal team can leave you exposed with little support. This is where you need to identify the company’s attitude and approach to training and development. If it’s positive, this can offer you a good deal of exposure to a wide variety of interesting and complex work without leaving you adrift. If the sole driver for hiring an NQ lawyer is because the budget is limited, it’s highly unlikely to offer a good level of training and development – a bad move for long-term career planning. Overall, there’s no hard and fast rule.
The first things you must do when you start a new in-house lawyer role
Understand the business - first and foremost
Understand your team
Work out when you'd hire outside counsel. If the business has used external lawyers in the past, who instructs them and what were/are they instructed to do
Keep up-to-date on legal developments - you're more isolated compared to working in a firm
Think about the business's legal activity at the moment - what's a priority?
What if I don't like it and I want to return to private practice?
If you start an in-house role, find it’s not your thing and conclude you’re more suited to private practice; it’s not the end of the world. Law firms are open to this move. This is due to the skills a lawyer acquires while working in-house; in particular, commercial skills and abilities that aren’t as easy to gain while working in a law firm. In addition, it sends a strong client message: ‘we have former in-house lawyers on the team who ‘understand your situation.’
There is a multitude of reasons why in-house lawyers look for another role. Some of the most common include:
A need or desire for a higher salary and/or overall package
A lack of promotional opportunities in current role
A new challenge: looking to keep work ‘interesting’
A better work-life balance
A change in location
Concerns with stability and growth of the current team
Concerns over redundancy
A personality clash with the team and/or business
A change in sector
According to recent salary surveys, the top three reasons for a move are:
Higher salary and/or overall package: 67 per cent
Lack of promotional opportunities in current role: 46 per cent
A new challenge or time to move on to keep work ‘interesting’: 39 per cent
To a certain extent, in-house lawyers have to take more responsibility when it comes to managing their own career development.
After your first in-house role, you need to assess what your key skills are and seek training in the areas you have less experience in. Of course, this is an ongoing process. The learning never stops.
If your work history involves working as a sole in-house lawyer, now may be a good time to put a business case together – to justify growing the legal function.
If your work history is in a larger in-house function and you’d like to gain management experience, the opportunity might not be available until one of your colleagues moves on or retires. In this instance, it might be time to move.
If you see yourself in a general counsel role within a large organisation, it usually requires a certain amount of time served. Firstly, you might find yourself responsible for a business division where you report to the finance director of that division - on top of your usual reporting line to the head of legal/general counsel.
Moving sectors as an in-house lawyer
In-house lawyer moves between sectors take place on a regular basis as companies prefer to hire those with senior-level industry experience as opposed to those who come directly from private practice.
What ambitious in-house lawyers do to push their career progression
Working towards promotion differs from private practice. Where a private practice lawyer is more likely to have the infrastructure and support in place to shape and define professional development plans, an in-house lawyer needs to be more self-sufficient. In working out your own plan, consider the following factors:
Legal skills and experience to date
Personal and interpersonal skills
Self-awareness and your desire to learn
Flexibility in your style
Cultural awareness and fit
Commercial awareness: knowing your business and industry, bringing in new ideas, spotting risks and opportunities
Find role models or mentors
Don’t shy away from challenges
Choose an organisation where the culture fits your values
All of the above will help, but if you’re not in the right company and/or environment, it doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re undervalued and your employer doesn’t care about your career progression, it simply won’t happen.
How to grow your value
How can you rate your value if you’re not identifying who should value you?
Develop a framework for engaging key stakeholders: identify who your key contacts are and make a plan to develop that relationship.
The current strength of the relationship (rate 1-5)
Desired strength of the relationship (rate 1-5)
Key interests and issues
Attend professional development (CPD) seminars
How to plan and keep on top of your in-house legal career
In order to plan your in-house legal career, you have to have goals and set targets. This falls to you, but once you’ve done so, in order to achieve them, it helps to undertake the following:
Gain a thorough knowledge of the market
Assess your strengths and weaknesses
Knowledge of the market
Look outward before you look inward; before you assess your own strengths and weaknesses, consider the strengths and weaknesses of the market. Be it by location, business sector or who you’re up against.
If you gain an understanding of present and forecasted trends, it puts you at a strategic advantage. A good legal recruiter should be your go-to person (throughout your entire career) for updates relating to the market.
Assess your strengths and weaknesses
It’s important to work these out, but don’t do it in silo. Don’t make assumptions; always get a second opinion. In the context of your in-house legal career, how can you benchmark your traits and skills without some level of insight? Once again, a good legal recruiter will be your go-to person for a comprehensive assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.
A good legal recruiter who’s been in the role for a long time will easily determine where you sit within the market and what you need to do in order to enhance your career. For example, you might need more managerial experience or to be more involved in decision-making.
Working with an in-house legal recruiter - what's the value?
For practical reasons e.g. time-saving
Advice/guidance and industry knowledge: you have a much better chance of covering all bases: in-house legal recruiters speak to and learn about the businesses and their legal teams in your area. They have the contacts, knowledge and information you need to help.
How to inaugurate a relationship
Provide your CV even if there’s no job advertisement as businesses don't advertise for every role. In addition, if a business is working closely with an in-house legal recruiter and they’re due to advertise, the legal recruiter may already have a shortlist in mind. If your CV isn’t under the nose of those who manage the hiring process, you’re not doing your career any favours. You’ve got to be in it to win it.
Interim roles present unique and diverse challenges that differ greatly from their permanent counterparts, and with the introduction of GDPR, there's been an increase in the volume and urgency of these positions within the in-house sector.
In addition, locum solicitor jobs are in heavy demand and making the switch from a permanent role can be an exciting, rewarding and lucrative experience. It requires a great deal of dynamism to assimilate quickly with a business’s team to get to grips with their short term needs and provide the best possible service.
Typically, locums are brought in for one of two reasons: to provide additional support on a project or heavy workload, or to provide cover for a permanent member of staff who’s leaving e.g. maternity leave.
Establishing the ‘why’ behind your contract will keep you on track with the goals you set out to achieve, giving you direction and allowing you to have maximum impact.
Don’t overlook getting to know the company/sector
Due to the temporary nature of the role, it’s tempting to skip preliminary company research. Prior to an interview, you should go into as much detail as if it were a permanent position. Due to the limited time to learn on the job, this is an important step to ensure you are best placed to deliver from day one. This is especially true where there’s a potential to go permanent; the interim period should be treated as an audition.
It’s easy to differentiate between a lawyer who’s focussed on providing the best all-around service for the company, to those who are simply there to carry out a number of tasks before moving on.
Know your strengths
For in-house lawyers interested in locum roles it’s important to understand it’s a case of ‘hit the ground running.’ Some in-house lawyers are adept to getting to know a business over a longer period of time and assist with long-term strategies, but the most successful interim lawyers recognise the need to make an immediate impact, and they aim to identify the areas where they can deliver (during the temporary time there).
Accept your weaknesses
Typically, this point is more important if you’re providing cover for an individual who’s taking a break from the business, such as someone taking maternity leave.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed in this situation and worry if you’re not performing at the same level and as efficiently as the person leaving. The key here is to remember you’re not there to replace that person or work at their level, given they’re likely to have had a number of years getting to know the business, its peculiarities and workings. You’re there to steady the ship and keep things ticking over as best as you can until they return.
Don’t compare yourself to the person who has greater knowledge and a substantial understanding of their role. Do the best you can with the skills you have and recognise the fact that you won’t be able to cover all bases; that way you can acknowledge where you’ll need extra assistance from the rest of the business.
Be flexible and say “yes”
After recognising your strengths and weaknesses, it might feel easy to avoid stepping out of your comfort zone where the role necessitates it. Again, it’s important to keep the business’s needs in mind and recognise why they needed interim support in the first place. It’s a great opportunity to muck in and have a key impact, helping out in areas you might not have as much exposure to. The business will thank you for it and it’s all part of the fun of taking on a locum role.
Build relationships quickly
You’re new to the business and you need to utilise all the knowledge and help that’s on hand to get to grips with the business’s needs and workings. It’s important to be as proactive as possible on this point as you won’t be afforded the luxury of a lengthy ‘bedding in’ period.
Businesses require interims at a time when their needs are immediate so acknowledge this and build your relationships as swiftly as possible, particularly with the rest of the legal team and key management. They will be invaluable throughout the term.
Overall, successful interims enjoy jumping into new teams and new challenges, producing better work and long-term development as a result.
Yes. Most in-house temp lawyers get paid an hourly rate - reflective of the assignment as it's PQE and industry-dependent. Therefore, rates vary significantly and can be anywhere between £30 and £100 per hour.
The obvious differences between the two include billable hours and business development; as an in-house lawyer, your performance is measured in other ways, such as how well you prioritise, how productive you are, how approachable you are and your ability to solve business problems (not just legal).
Generally, in-house offers a better work/life balance, more autonomy and less hierarchy. It’s less formal but there’s a need to be more proactive when it comes to legal updates; you can’t rely on firm updates.
The commercial awareness and ‘business brain’ you’re able to develop as an in-house lawyer can't be replicated in private practice.
There’s both truth and myth in this. Salaries are usually equal and sometimes better than private practice, especially at the junior to mid-level roles, but due to company salary banding and the fact in-house lawyers don’t get paid based on billable hours, promotion pathways are different.
On top of salary, in-house legal positions offer generous pension schemes, share options, bonuses and vehicle allowances.
Working in-house lends itself to part-time and flexible working patterns more easily than private practice. The main reason for this is the absence of billable hours; output is measured on other results.
In addition, as you’re not usually acting as a transactional lawyer and essentially your team is your ‘client base’, it’s easier to convene realistic conversations around the urgency of work and to ‘push back’ to your ‘clients.’
Often, the business will state they need access to in-house legal counsel all week, but with advances in technology, no-one is ever truly out of touch.
The desire to work in-house has increased in popularity over the past ten years. In many instances, it’s viewed as a ‘route out’ of private practice, however, if that’s a lawyer’s sole motivation they’re unlikely to get past the first interview.
Do I need to be a commercial lawyer to make a move?
Given most in-house roles focus on commercial law, a commercial background is useful. However, overall aptitude is more important. In a nutshell, this means you’ll enjoy being visible within a business; dealing with an endless flow of urgent and varied queries that cross your desk every day.
In saying the above, not all in-house roles have a commercial focus. Increasingly, the demands of the market can create opportunities for lawyers with other specialities. It can be more cost-effective for larger companies to have access to employment, property or litigious advice ‘on tap’; moving towards legal teams that provide an all-rounded legal service for the business.
Private practice lawyers who don’t have commercial experience are encouraged to make enquiries regarding the options available to them. In a lawyer short market, companies are more open-minded. As an example, a lot consider commercially-minded corporate lawyers, including NQs.
It’s horses for courses and often depends on your passions and where your talents lie, but in short, definitely not.
First and foremost, the transition from private practice to in-house can be incredibly challenging, and there are many different pressures to consider. These challenges are never insurmountable as generally, you’ll have a more experienced in-house team member to support and help you in your career and professional development.
This being said, the work-life balance can be better; although, it’s sometimes not as ‘relaxed’ as it might seem from the outside. For example, if you’re working for a global plc, there might be a need to be available during unsociable hours – so you can speak to colleagues who are based in other offices overseas. However, flexibility in your working hours and having ‘more of a life’ beyond work – during the week as well as the weekend – is more valued in the in-house world.
A lot of lawyers tend to focus on the negatives of private practice rather than the positives of in-house. It’s easy to get caught up in complaining about law firm business development, billing and political pressures. For the right lawyers, working in-house is highly satisfying. For those who enjoy hands-on work and commercial involvement, you’ll find yourself with substantial influence over business decision-making; often at a strategic level.
Many lawyers don’t think about moving in-house on qualification. This is an option but it’s more common to wait until you’ve gained at least 18 months’ experience in practice.
In saying this, despite the fact that opportunities at NQ level are rare, there’s an increase in lawyers who make the move on qualification. At this point in your career, what’s important is the team and organisation you’re moving to and the training and development on offer.
At the junior level, it’s extremely important to make sure you’re developing into a technically competent lawyer. A large or fast-growing company with a healthy approach to legal affairs and an established in-house team could be better for you than a small company where you might feel exposed. Or, you may enjoy the thrill of getting stuck in and being highly visible in a Number Two role; supporting a General Counsel or Head of Legal.
If you’re a senior private practice lawyer who’s considering a move in-house, don’t overthink it.
If you decide at 15 years’ PQE (or more) you want to make the move, you might find the job hunt tough. Senior roles don’t arise very often (especially in the regions), and when they do, a majority at this level go to lawyers who already possess in-house experience.
If you’re afforded the opportunity to apply for an in-house role, even if it feels like a sideways step (senior associate level as opposed to head of legal), as long as the pay is appropriate, go for it.
Know what you want
You need to have a clear idea of your capabilities and which in-house legal jobs will be the best fit. This should encompass all aspects of your working life. For example, do you prefer to work for a large corporate or a smaller enterprise? Do you want to work in a team or would you prefer working on your own? What sort of commute is going to work for you?
Be honest with yourself
When it comes to career direction, don’t be too rigid. Too many lawyers pressure themselves into thinking their next career step must go in a particular direction, only to decide that after some questioning, another direction suits them better.
Maybe you don't want the pressures associated with a head of legal position and managing a team and you’d prefer a sole lawyer role. There are many routes to a successful and meaningful career. Work out what makes you tick and what you most enjoy and let us find it for you!
It’s a good legal recruitment agency’s role to bring the right opportunities to you, provide you with job descriptions (if they exist from the client) and insight: into the company, the legal team (if one exists) and overall opportunity. However, as a job seeker, you need to conduct your own research.
Approach a good legal recruiter
Developing a good relationship with a legal recruitment agency that has a dedicated in-house legal division, and a consultant who specialises in your geographical the area is key. Throughout your job search, keep in close contact – this will always give you a head start.
If you're not quite ready to move
If you’re not looking to move for another twelve months or so, it’s a good idea to develop a relationship with an in-house legal recruiter (who specialises in your area of interest) in advance. Sometimes, it can take a while for the right in-house legal role to arise. You don’t want to miss out due to timing.