Should I work in-house?

Thinking of starting your in-house career? Legal journalist Grania Langdon-Down speaks to recruitment experts and practitioners about the pros and cons.

If you're interested in making the move in-house, how do you make the decision?

Will business and commerce be right for you, or might you consider law firm management roles instead?

What kinds of skills do you need to work in-house effectively? And if you later want to move to private practice, how easy might that journey be? 

Recruitment experts from two leading legal recruiters give their perspective on the in-house market, while practitioners working in commerce and industry, the Government Legal Service and local government share their experiences.

The in-house jobs market

Jon-Paul Hanrahan, associate director of Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment, says the growth in in-house roles has been "incredible" over the last decade, particularly in the regions.

The number of in-house lawyers has grown significantly over the last few years, making up nearly a quarter of the profession.

The number of organisations taking on in-house counsel has risen too – most commonly in the commerce and industry sector – as organisations keep more work in-house.

Neel Mehta and Andrew Rogers, senior consultants with Hays Recruitment, identify:

  • high levels of competition
  • high demand for commercial, IT and corporate lawyers
  • higher demand within technology businesses and start-ups
  • consistent demand across the public sector
  • higher demand at the junior end of the market

On the career development front, there is a greater willingness to train up and invest in junior lawyers, more in-house training contracts, and greater value put on early in-house exposure and commerciality.

Sapna Bedi FitzGerald is company secretary and head of legal at LSL Property Services plc. She says good candidates are in high demand, with companies creating new in-house teams from scratch.

But has the market been affected by the recession and its continuing effects?

"Budgets are being cut, and my instinct says the growth will slow down," says FitzGerald. "But an in-house department is still cheaper than retaining external lawyers. I think private practice will see a cut in instructions while in-house are asked to do more for less, which can be dangerous."

Local government has been particularly hard hit by austerity measures.

"You won't become a millionaire or drive a Maserati in local government," says Dennis Hall, commercial manager at Gateshead Council. The austerity agenda has cut deeply into budgets. Training contracts have shrunk and jobs are at risk.

"Then there is the Brexit effect," he says. "Many regeneration schemes are underpinned by funding from the European Regional Development Fund, and other similar funding streams will gradually disappear."

On the flip side, Hall points out that local authorities are recognised for being very good employers, and have continued to prioritise staff despite recent pressures.

"Before the austerity agenda, all had good training budgets, and they remain committed to modern workforce practices and policies such as agile and remote working."

And even Brexit may present opportunities: "Ironically, the need to access appropriate legal advice has never been greater, in order to assess the impact of all of these changes."

The pros of working in-house

It's being part of a team making things happen that is so attractive for Deborah Grimason, general counsel and company secretary at Travis Perkins plc.

"You work in an environment that is driven by more than chargeable hours and fees, and you can get involved in financials, supply chain, procurement, project management, which gives you the experience to become general counsel."

Catherine Seldon, a lawyer in the Government Legal Department's justice and security public law litigation team, says that team-working was a key element of her move from a legal aid firm.

"Apart from wanting to learn about policy creation," she says, "I was also interested in working as part of a team, co-located with my clients, rather than as a one-man-band, which is often the case in legal aid or small private practice firms."

For FitzGerald, variety is the spice of life. "A huge plus for my career has been the variety of legal work – public, EU, commercial, regulatory, governance – plus we are an integral part of the business, contributing to risk management and business development."

This range of work is only increasing. In-house counsel are seen as the gatekeepers of their organisations in the face of large, set-piece governance issues and as regulators are given more teeth to target both organisation and individuals.

In-house also tends to have more flexible working arrangements and offer a more balanced life.

"Your relationship with your client is also more equal, as you are not dependent on them for your fee income," FitzGerald says.

Leanne Wood, an associate for the Qualcomm group, trained and qualified in-house. She was attracted by the work-life balance, the variety of work, never knowing what might come across her desk, and not having to document her time for billing.

Hall points to the sense of personal satisfaction of working in-house in local government.

"If you measure satisfaction in terms of making a commitment to public service, doing something of value to others in a challenging, sometimes thankless environment – from the public perspective at least – then local government is for you."

The cons of working in-house

The level of responsibility of a senior in-house position has a flip side.

"You still do stressful hours, the work is demanding and you don't have an army of people doing your filing," explains FitzGerald. But it's also exciting, she says, because "it's fast-moving and you have to be proactive in spotting issues, and react if something happens".

Some in-house counsel say they have to fight the perception that they are a cost rather than a driver of the business; work can still be typecast and jobs can be unstable as companies merge, restructure and relocate.

Hanrahan says that joining a small team or being sole counsel can be "incredibly demanding and lonely".

He continues: "We have seen the emergence of junior level vacancies where there are no other lawyers, or only one, and we advise our juniors that they need a couple of years' experience in private practice first. It's tempting to see a nice brand and think 'this is what I am looking for' but there is no support, and these guys can get spat out very quickly."

Career progression

The perception is salaries are lower than in private practice, with the gap growing at the more senior levels.

However, Hanrahan says they are seeing roles, particularly in the north west, where salaries are better than in private practice.

Career progression is sometimes seen as more limited in-house, because in-house departments traditionally have a flatter structure.

But Hanrahan also says that progression in-house is actually often better than private practice once you break into more senior roles: "Progression isn't always great in private practice, with the current bottleneck at the top, as partners retire later."

Young in-house solicitors in local government are often given high levels of responsibility early in their careers, says Hall, and there are opportunities for progression and specialisation.

Are there other options for me if I'm interested in business and commerce?

Christina Blacklaws, chief operating officer at Cripps, suggests law firm management as another option. After 25 years as a practising solicitor, she has held director-level roles.

"I seized the opportunity to work on the business of law, as this has always fascinated me," she says.

"The chance to drive strategic thinking and effect significant change in a business is highly rewarding, although the operational challenges of implementation should never be under-estimated."

But, she warns: "You can end up being the blunt instrument of change and the least liked person in the firm if you haven't got everyone on board. It's a high risk role, so not one for the faint-hearted."

"There are great rewards, but the buck stops with you if something goes wrong. Nonetheless, I would recommend it to anyone up for a challenge."

If you are interested in a management role in a law firm, "test out your appetite early on by getting involved around knowledge management, learning and development, inclusion and diversity, corporate responsibility. Show that you have or can develop the skillsets to make an excellent project manager."

Skills needed for an in-house role

A commercial outlook is key. Hanrahan defines this as "plain talking, and being a decision-maker rather than an advice-giver".

If you're moving from private practice, you may need to translate your experience working with clients into language that highlights that commercial aspect.

"Have a demonstrable track record of developing and keeping business," Hanrahan explains.

One important skill, says FitzGerald is the "ability to say no. Culturally, when you are in private practice, you want to do everything for your client and turn nothing away. In-house, you are a restricted resource, so you have to be clear about your core role, where you can add value and what you don't do, or the core stuff will slip".

Paul Gilbert, CEO of Wise Counsel consultancy, says: "Your in-house role is not to create demand for your time, but to de-risk decision-making, policy and process, so as to reduce dependency. Key skills therefore include planning, influencing management and change implementation."

For Grimason, being a successful in-house lawyer requires the ability to "make the complex simple. You need an understanding of the numbers, as well as being able to speak the language of your business, and have an opinion which you are prepared to share."

"You also need to be prepared to take responsibility for your mistakes in a business environment, without personal indemnity to cover you."

Being good at thinking on your feet and being adept at distilling new information are critical, says Seldon.

"A client can appear at your desk at any time without warning, with a question about an entirely unfamiliar area of law. You might then be called to attend a ministerial meeting about it that afternoon, or find it is mentioned in the next day's papers."

Soft skills are critical, Blacklaws notes. "You need to be a superb communicator and be able to engage and work effectively with a wide range of people. Coaching and coordinating come with the territory, so you need to be highly organised, efficient and set goals. Above all, you need to be driven, clear-sighted, a leader – but one who is adaptable and agile."

Gilbert also highlights the ability to be "practical and pragmatic" and "influential without necessarily having power".

"A strong sense of personal resilience" is helpful. Hall agrees that this is of particular importance in local government, because "your powers of persuasion will constantly be tested".

The small size of many in-house teams mean that team-working skills and the ability to fit in with the prevailing dynamic are important.

When FitzGerald is recruiting, she focuses on candidates who are the right fit for the team, rather than on pure technical skills, unless it is for a specific role. "We are a small team, based in the same room, and work closely together, so it is about having the right blend of personalities and attitudes," she says.

Grimason also stresses the need for in-house lawyers to be team-workers, commercially astute, solution-driven, pragmatic and not afraid to put their head above the parapet.

In contrast, private practice lawyers can be successful as a 'lone' worker, who puts technical expertise above commercial pragmatism.

Hall says that, in local government, "the further you go, the more management responsibility is involved".

To succeed at the highest level, he says, you need the ability and confidence to:

  • speak to power
  • think commercially, corporately and strategically
  • demonstrate sound judgment particularly in assessing ethical questions and risk issues
  • recognise all problems and have both solutions and options
  • manage the political interface with elected members

He says the strategic level in local government closely resembles that of a GC in a large corporate, so the skillsets overlap.

"Both are concerned with the corporate perspective, ethics and governance, while legal services are managed/delivered both internally and externally."

Being able to delegate effectively, and be patient (because local government is bureaucratic) are also important skills in local government.

Moving from in-house to private practice

Moving from private practice to in-house is increasingly popular, but what if you want to make the move in the opposite direction?

The first thing to be sure of is your motivation and rationale, advise the Hays consultants, Mehta and Rogers, because you will be quizzed about it by potential employers.

While it may depend on PQE and whether you are specialist or generalist, Hanrahan says heads of legal and general counsel can be attractive to private practice.

The problem is, having walked away from their client following to go in-house, it can be difficult to make a business case for bringing them into a partnership, unless they bring their company with them.

But all is not lost, he says: "A firm may want to buy into their commerciality and bring them into a managerial role or a busy practice area where their knowledge will be valuable."

Your specialist practice area in-house will obviously be relevant.

For instance, Hall says that specialisms in local government like planning, regeneration, property and procurement/commercial work are highly valued in the private sector.

And whatever your specialism, make sure you have kept up your 'little black book' of contacts, adds the Hays consultants.

But few of our contributors would want to make the move into private practice.

Grimason is an emphatic "no", while Wood and FitzGerald say they have no plans to do so, but "never say never".

Tips for in-house career success

"Make in-house a career choice, not because you think it's going to be an easier option or less stressful." – Sapna Bedi Fitzgerald, company secretary and head of legal at LSL Property Services plc

"If you are moving in-house as a trainee or as a first role, the broader your life experience beforehand the better, such as doing a non-law degree." – Deborah Grimason, general counsel and company secretary at Ceres Power plc

"Take every opportunity to train and study in areas relevant to your role. Take secondment and shadowing opportunities, and be clear why you want to enter local government." – Dennis Hall, commercial manager at Gateshead Council

"There are fewer job adverts, so write speculative applications to companies you are interested in. A paralegal role might lead to a training contract, but don't stay too long if it doesn't materialise." – Leanne Wood, senior legal adviser at BritBox International

"Not all employers value their legal team, so only join one that is clear about its purpose. Look at the culture created by the GC, the quality of infrastructure, and whether wellbeing of staff is actively managed." – Paul Gilbert

"Consider the Government Legal Department, because it gives you access to fascinating and varied cases. Salaries may be lower, but there are excellent benefits, including options to take career breaks." – Catherine Seldon, solicitor in the Government Legal Department

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