In-house versus Private Practice

Jul 2020

Trends, Myths & Realities

Is the grass greener?’ We identified the growing emergence of in-house opportunities, as well as the fact that similar skills apply in both private practice and in-house. More specifically, we have observed growing trends in the financial services, oil & gas, media and utilities sectors, as well as a high demand for transactional lawyers. The reasons behind the general increase for in-house lawyers are firstly economic: it is more cost effective to have an in-house adviser than outsourcing all legal work. Secondly, in-house allows the organisation in question to retain control to a greater extent over their day-to-day issues as well as larger transactional issues. Hence one of the reasons for greater interest in corporate transactional lawyers.

Myths of working In-house

  • Shorter working hours
  • Relaxing environment / ‘Easy day at the office’
  • No time sheets/billings
  • Greater job security
  • More commercial involvement in the running of the business (through exposure to day-to-day operations).
  • Overall increased quality of life as pressures have been removed
  • Salaries increasingly in line with PP – additional benefits are also improving

Realities of working In-house

  • Quality of life – does it improve – as companies are not outsourcing their legal work anymore, they are demanding more from their in-house lawyers
  • Shortage of good in-house lawyers means increased demand to deal with heavier workloads – therefore longer hours worked than anticipated
  • Increased responsibility with ltd back up support – also ltd resources – you can’t borrow from other dept’s resources.
  • Internal politics of different depts – where do your loyalties lie?
  • Not your own master (or mistress) – you are immediately accountable to the company you are working for.
  • Industry is more volatile, and reacts quicker than private practice to market/global changes. Stability depends on the industry (no one is indispensable)
  • Some pressure to add value to overall running of business
  • Requires skills in relating to a wide spectrum of internal clients from varied departments/sections (but who are all equally ‘clients’).
  • Stressful environment – some industries require rapid responses from their in-house legal team (if you are part of a team that is), and you have to honour these tighter deadlines/restrictions
  • You are an ‘overhead’, therefore have to work harder to get respect
  • Difficult for returning to PP as PP is becoming increasingly specialised – in-house you are expected to know ‘everything’ about the law
  • No following

It is also a fair observation that over the past 10 years, private practice lawyers have had to be a lot more commercial, and there is a growing emphasis on their business development skills. Law firms are telling us about the increasing pressure to widen their skills profile to include marketing, business development, the pressures of client relationship management, and all this while having to bill the same if not more hours. Those lawyers in in-house positions are realising that the rumours of job security and an easy life are not necessarily true, and that there is the burden of being expected to know ‘everything about the law’. Companies are outsourcing less and demanding more from their own lawyers. In-house there are extra responsibilities – you cannot assume that someone else has checked through decisions. More responsibility is the result of fewer resources and the fact that you cannot ‘borrow’ from other depts for advise/assistance. And all this within a business context that is traditionally more hierarchical than private practice. Have you seriously considered these aspects to the in-house role? This is by no means a bleak picture that we are painting, we are very much aware of how the business environment is changing, all we suggest is you be aware of this as well.

The in-house role

So what is the role of the in-house lawyer? In-house lawyers are effectively part of the client’s business team, using their legal skills to promote the interests of the business. The in-house lawyer traditionally acted and still does in many instances as the interface between the client and the external law firm, the in-house lawyer managing all aspects of that relationship.

In house lawyers know the underlying dynamics of the company far better than any external law firm will – in-house counsel are best placed to relay an external lawyer’s advice internally. In-house lawyers are far more involved in the commercial processes, and often play crucial roles within the business, not only as advisers but also as negotiators and managers, there for the need for broad commercial skills is greater in-house than in private practice.

The transition

The skills base is broad enough not to require any formal training; a lot of it will be on-the-job. If you are joining a team, then the experience of your colleagues facilitates your transition. But formal training particularly in management is being recognised as beneficial/essential to in-house lawyers. We have seen qualified lawyers moving in-house from private practice and vice versa. However, we would also state that in our experience, private practice lawyers are more attractive to industry on the whole than industry looking to return to PP.

Whatever your motivations or your expectations, moving in-house should be the result of thorough research into the company you are moving to.

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