What's going on with the in-house job market?

Tom Bagley, a recruiter for in-house legal roles, gives us an overview of the state of the in-house job market. He shares what companies are really looking for when recruiting lawyers and reveals the emerging in-house hotspots across the country.
a woman dressed for work, stands on a train platform, with her one in one hand and a takeaway coffee in another.
A black and white headshot of Tom Bagley. The last few years have seen an everchanging landscape in the in-house legal job market.

Hybrid working and economic changes have made for a changing picture, marred by periods of uncertainty, and repaired by growth.

Making sense of it all is Tom Bagley, Head of In-House Legal, Risk and Compliance Recruitment at Douglas Scott Recruitment, a legal recruitment firm, which covers the whole of the UK.

Tom has worked there for over six years but has been in the recruitment field for almost a decade. In that time, he’s witnessed immense change – especially recently.

For Tom, the last two years have been largely strong for the in-house job market: “a boom period”, he says.

COVID paused the market at a time where there was a lot of movement anyway. Once the initial shock subsided, Tom noticed there was “a massive flurry of recruitment activity” where companies felt more comfortable to hire.

An equally seismic shock though, was the recent economic uncertainty.

“Liz Truss’s budget led to a lot of uncertainty,” Tom explains. “Many businesses put their hiring on hold, and candidates were nervous to move in that financial climate.”

Tom’s workload has been challenged since the start of the year by the legal market conditions, but he’s noticed more confidence in the market over the past couple of months.

“It’s started to pick up again. It’s definitely starting to get back to ‘normal’”.

Northern powerhouses

Post-pandemic, new legal centres began to emerge across England, where companies were keen to open new legal departments.

This was made possible by the proliferation of hybrid-working, but for Tom, financial factors are also at play.

“In my opinion, companies started realising that they could find strong talent outside of the main regions like London, for less cost.

“We’ve had some big clients that have relocated their legal functions from London to Manchester and Birmingham.”

These northern cities are burgeoning legal centres, showing promising trends of a growing legal job market.

“There are hotspots,” Tom says. “Lancashire is still big for manufacturing, with many of these businesses operating within the region as far back as the industrial revolution.”

“Cambridge is big for life sciences, and some of the big banks are relocating their legal teams to Manchester and Birmingham”.

Similarly, the continued trend of businesses understanding they’ve reached a point where having their own in-house legal department is more cost-effective than contracting legal work out externally.

“A mid-sized business could be spending half a million on legal costs a year, with external law firms but they can bring someone in-house for £70,000, £80,000 a year and reduce that outlay.”

What are businesses looking for?

The value that a specialist recruitment consultancy firm can bring to an organisation looking for an in-house lawyer is high.

Businesses, looking to hire based on legal expertise, often lack the knowledge to hire a lawyer who will meet their specific needs.

“We often see frustration from hiring managers or General Counsels, when their internal talent acquisition teams bring candidates that don’t have the specific expertise required. That’s where we add a bit of value.”

But when Tom is brought in – what are companies looking for? “It depends on the market,” Tom says.

“In London, because there will be a larger pool of candidates, they can be pickier around who they’re looking for. If it’s a tech business, for example, they may ask for someone with in-house legal experience, within a technology business.

“When it comes to regions outside of London, there’s usually more flexibility.”

Given the nature of in-house, experience with contracts is always advantageous: “The bread and butter of what people are looking for is a commercial lawyer who is experienced in drafting, reviewing or negotiating commercial contracts”.

However, other secondary practice areas (as Tom calls them) that employers often look for are “corporate or employment or property/construction law for example”.

Commercial awareness is also a big factor that companies consider when hiring a new in-house lawyer.

“Typically speaking, in private practice, lawyers are generally risk averse. They’re inclined to give really sound legal advice to the letter of the law to avoid any unnecessary legal proceedings for their client.”

“But when you go in-house, the attitude is slightly different, because there’s a greater focus on commerciality: an understanding that the business needs to function and take some risks to make money but in a legal & compliant manner and this is a fine balancing act.”

As well as specific skills and experience, businesses are looking for more than just knowledge when it comes to hiring people.

“Personality can be important. Businesses are looking for a lawyer than can communicate well with different departments, such as finance, IT and sales. It’s key for in-house lawyers to be able to work with people with different skillsets and be seen as a business facilitator.”

In some companies Tom works with, this has been formalised. He shares that in a recent meeting with a client, they were aware of the ‘O Shaped Lawyer’ - a “client led, research-based initiative,” that works with lawyers and businesses to create positive change in the legal profession. It promotes values like optimism and taking ownership.

Nailing the interview

Hiring managers will take note of character attributes at interview. Tom knows employers are thinking about how candidates could work with other departments.

Another thing he says is important is a candidate’s knowledge of how in-house works.

“In firms, you have billable hours and time recording. If candidates ask at interview for an in-house role, 'how are you going to monitor the amount of work I'm doing? Will it be timed?' That’s not in-house at all.

“You're a lawyer for the business: you do the work that that’s asked of you by the business and you prioritise tasks in order of importance. A lack of knowledge about that sticks out in an interview process.”

But if you’re looking to leave private practice, and don’t feel you know enough about the culture and requirements for in-house, Tom’s advice is clear: do your research.

“Speak to a recruiter or people you know that are in-house already. They'll be able to give you insight as to what it's actually like.”

“Our role as a recruitment consultant is to be consultative: we provide opportunities to get free advice from us about the sector so feel free to make the most of that”.

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You can find out more about Douglas Scott Recruitment, and the roles they have available, on their website.

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