As a Legal Recruitment Consultant, the question I get asked most often, right after “can you get me a bigger salary?” is; “can you tell me about roles in-house?”
This query comes from lawyers of all practice areas and levels of PQE, and often many of the reasons for their interest are the same; to move away from billable hours, have access to more varied work, work-life balance, career opportunities, work on deals and matters from start to finish, and the desire to work in a more (perceived) relaxed and chilled environment.
Whilst all valid reasons, often lawyers aren't aware of the realities of what it takes to be a successful in-house lawyer and what in-house clients are looking for (aside from great technical skills) and what a typical day would look like if they made the move. To be fair to those In-house lawyers who are there working hard, it isn’t all short flex days, paid for meals, large bonuses, on-site massages and gym memberships. So, before deciding to make the move from Private Practice to In-house, let’s explore the realities of life in-house.
Firstly, the majority of In-house opportunities in Australia are with Banking and Financial institutions and Insurance companies, who often have large in-house teams that often operate similarly to Private Practice firms in terms of structure and are equipped with strong support teams. Similar structures also exist in many large multinationals. Aside from these examples; the size of legal divisions tends to vary from company to company, but for companies that have smaller, or solo, legal departments, lawyers can expect a more varied role. These roles provide variety in the legal work that they are involved with and they are also called upon to provide counsel to the broader business.
When I am being briefed for an in-house opportunity, somewhere within the top 3 “must haves” for potential candidates is commercial acumen. When joining an in-house team you will be expected to provide not only legal advice, but also act as an advisor to the entire business. You will be working with non-legal stakeholders daily, so studies in business, finance, economics, or prior work experience in business will be considered favourably in most instances, as being able to see the big picture is imperative for success.
If the opportunity is a General Counsel role, adaptability will also be a key requirement, as with many in-house roles, no two days will be the same. This is often an element which appeals to many in-house lawyers. The reasoning is; General Counsel are requested to advise on all legalities that the company may need; from reviewing contracts, advising on HR issues, litigation matters, liaising and managing outside counsel, mergers and acquisitions and more. This is particularly true if the role is the only member of the legal department. Despite this offering the variety many crave, it’s often the part that is the biggest adjustment for lawyers making the transition.
Another draw card is you will have much more access to your client and they will also have much more access to you! This is an aspect that some lawyers thrive upon, while others discover they prefer a little more distance and that having their clients appear at their desks with a “quick question” isn’t how they like to work.
The biggest appeal for most lawyers is to get relief from the pressures of billable hours. This relief though, does not always equate to a less demanding role or a more flexible working week.
A strong indicator of the commitment expected by the business is usually the salary on offer. Successful commercial businesses generally aren’t offering generous salaries, bonuses and benefits, without high expectations. This doesn’t necessarily equate to long hours, but it is best to investigate the business approach to flexibility before you commit. One of the factors that can affect flexibility and your working hours is the size of your team and support base. In private practice you have your colleagues, as well as legal support staff to assist you in meeting deadlines. In leaner, or solo, in-house teams it pays to thoroughly understand the company’s expectations of the legal function and the resources you will have access to. Additionally, I strongly suggest when interviewing for roles, you ask professionals of similar levels within the company you are meeting with, about their work demands, commitments and lifestyle, as they are often a good indicator of the company’s expectations of their staff.
Finally, keep in mind positioning. In private practice if you are an Associate, Senior Associate, or Partner, those positions are respected and celebrated across the firm. Your colleagues are aware of the hard work that you have put in to achieve that status and you may well be highly regarded as a leader within the business.
The perspective a business has of their in-house legal teams can shift from day to day, depending on the involvement they have with the team and whether that involvement is viewed as positive or negative. When stakeholders are not getting the answers or approvals they want or agree with, it often requires a strong communicator to navigate and build professional relationships.
There is no denying it in-house legal roles can be a fantastic career opportunity, with variety of responsibilities, great client contact, a chance to diversify your skill set, and work in a different environment (and goodbye to the billable hours!) but like any role it’s not for everyone!
So before you start your next recruitment conversation with “I want to move in-house” make sure you have been realistic with yourself about your expectations, drivers and working style, as that will be the key to making a successful next career move.
If you’d like to have a confidential discussion about your next in-house or private practice move, please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org