The rise and rise of the in-house lawyer

Sofia is a woman with long dark hair standing in front of a plain background wearing a suit. She is smiling. The photograph is in greyscale.
Sofia GohirConsultant Legal Counsel

The number of practising in-house lawyers is growing in the UK and across the world. Sofia Gohir explains some of the factors contributing to this, and what it could mean for the in-house community

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In-house practice is the fastest growing sector in the legal profession. According to the Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report 2019, there are an estimated 31,000 registered in-house solicitors – a figure that has almost tripled over the last 20 years. 

According to Lawyers Weekly, this rise is reflected globally, most notably in Asia and Commonwealth Australia.

Now over one year into the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19, coupled with a change in companies’ expectations, has acted as a catalyst in the rise in number of in-house lawyers in today’s legal market. 

Today’s world 

Repeated lockdowns, business closures, supply chain disruptions, and a duty of care to employees and customers, have all created legal headaches for companies.

With these factors in mind, it’s clear the legal implications of every business decision require more constant attention than ever before. 

With the global situation being so fluid and fast-moving, having an existing legal function that deeply understands the business, its clients and stakeholders, and that can swiftly set the tone, is proving more and more essential.

Cybersecurity and privacy

One of the most pronounced changes in companies this year is the increasing importance of data security and privacy.

A serious challenge that companies are facing is the cybersecurity threat, one that was already present pre-COVID-19.

As remote worked kicked in when the working world moved online, hacking threats undoubtedly increased.

New research shows that over the past year, there was a 31% increase in cyber threats during the height of the pandemic in the UK

While hacking threats present obvious challenges for companies, they also present opportunities. As companies prioritise detection, cybersecurity and data privacy, specialised in-house lawyers are high in demand.

This trend has created a lateral hiring spree amongst many companies. Research from Cyber Security Ventures suggests that 100% of Fortune 500 companies will have a chief information security officer position by the end of 2021.

With this increased need to support and govern this growing sector, demand for in-house legal roles will only continue to increase.

Technology 

As all companies’ risks continue to expand, many businesses have been forced to rapidly adopt new practices across their operational models. But at the heart of these changes has been the concept of technological innovation.

Investment into UK lawtech start-ups increased from £2.5 million in 2016 to £72 million between January and September 2020. 

Given the focus on the technology sector, the need for technology-specific advice will only grow. Senior recruiters and industry observers have noticed an increased demand from companies for technology lawyers.

A recent report revealed that lawtech as a sector is growing 6% every year, as the in-house legal workforce becomes more mobile, younger and tech-savvy.

Flexi-lawyering and part-time working

One of the most interesting changes we are seeing within the in-house community is a move away from permanent roles to more flexible and agile ways of working.

This is happening in two ways – part-time working and flexi-lawyering. 

Senior recruiters I have spoken to have observed from recent LinkedIn data that part-time in-house roles are coming on to the market more frequently – such roles were rare in the past.

One of the reasons for this is that smaller companies may not have a budget that extends to permanent headcounts.

Rather than not having the added benefit of an in-house counsel at all, offering new options for part-time employees is seen perhaps as a better option than seeking external advice.

Whilst external counsel’s specialist advice is certainly helpful, it is likely to not be tailored to a business’s specific needs, which, since COVID-19, is proving invaluable. 

Flexi-lawyers, on the other hand, are focused on delivering legal services in an agile way, whether that be on a secondment or project basis – an approach that is starting to pick up pace in the UK.

The idea that lawyers can have the time and flexibility to perform more than one job and work in more than one sphere is liberating to many new entrants in the legal profession.

PricewaterhouseCoopers expects 20% of its workforce to be contractors or temporary workers within a few years

As our working habits have moved away from the regular 9 to 5 in an office five days a week, it’s likely that the approach flexi-lawyering offers will appeal to many more people in today’s world. It will be interesting to see the range of people attracted to in-house in the coming years.

Looking forward

When times are so uncertain, it is paramount that people can turn to in-house lawyers as trusted advisers, to help them navigate the turbulence of the next few years and give them some assurance.

These merits have proven to be invaluable to companies dealing with the disruptions posed by COVID-19, and will only become more valued in the coming years. 

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