An Inside Job? A Look at 6 Key Differences Between Private Practice and Working In-house

Posted on 28/10/2016 by Katherine Memery

A conventional legal career path involves completing an LLB and the LPC, securing a training contract and entering private practice. However, increasingly fierce competition for training contracts and alternative routes to qualification mean that not all lawyers end up working in a law firm.

A growing number of organisations employ in-house counsel instead of outsourcing the bulk of their legal work to outside firms. Recent figures reveal that around 20% of barristers and 22% of solicitors work outside of the private legal sector. This often makes financial sense for companies, but also means that they are more likely able to quickly deal with legal issues.

Both approaches have their own merits, and each requires a slightly different skillset:

1.      Variety of work

Law firms provide solicitors with an opportunity to specialise. Many lawyers enjoy working within a niche area and spend a successful career developing expertise in that area of law. However, for others, this specialisation might lead to monotony.

Depending on the nature and scale of the business, in-house lawyers, however, can have a much more rounded experience and deal with a broad range of general commercial legal issues. Because most posts allow lawyers to work within a number of practice areas, ranging from commercial transactions and acquisitions to employment matters and property law, the work of in-house counsel can be more varied than that of those working in larger specialist law firms.  

In-house solicitors, including trainees, are often quickly given responsibility. Variety and autonomy are often prime motivators for an in-house move.

2.      Salary and career progression

While starting salaries for NQs in-house roles and private practice positions are broadly similar, for more senior positions, solicitors working in private practice tend to earn significantly more.

Salary scales for in-house roles vary depending on the sector; those working in the construction sector, for example, usually have higher starting salaries than those working in say, local government.

Pigeon-holed within an organisation, it is rare for in-house lawyers to reach a senior corporate management position. Career progression is perhaps more certain within private practice, and for ambitious, commercially astute lawyers, progressing through the ranks can be exceptionally lucrative. 

3.      Work-life balance

Lawyers in private practice are expected to put their client’s needs first and their personal requirements second. A heavy workload means that family commitments and social activities might need to be cancelled at the last minute.

Compared with the relentless grind encountered by those working for city firms, in-house lawyers generally enjoy a slightly better work-life balance. They usually have the ability to plan ahead and greater freedom to control their working hours as long as deadlines are met. But when a crisis arises, they too are expected to put in the hours necessary to resolve matters.

4.      Clients

Clients are the driving force for private practice. Solicitors, particularly those at smaller firms, are expected to bring in business and secure their own clients.

In-house lawyers serve only one client. This is a huge advantage, as they can thoroughly grasp their needs and better understand how the application of the law will impact the business strategy. However, if something goes wrong, there’s no escape; their client is also their colleague.

Because they are fully integrated into the business they are instructing, in-house solicitors are able to see the long-term effects of their legal advice. As a result, the work of in-house counsel can be truly rewarding. This is simply not the case for solicitors working for a private firm, who usually only witness the short-term consequences of their work.

5.      Required skillset

Time management

All lawyers need to be able to balance their workload. In private firms, lawyers are forced to work under huge commercial pressure, especially in a fixed-fee environment, where solicitors are required to meet tough billable hour targets.

Although in-house lawyers do not usually have to worry about billable hours, they regularly need to work under immense pressure. They are often pulled in a number of different directions, especially when working in a small legal team. Responsible for a wide range of issues, they too must be highly organised and able to prioritise.

Commercial awareness

Business acumen is an essential skill for all lawyers but is especially important for in-house solicitors. Throughout their work, in-house lawyers will gain a thorough understanding of the running, aspirations and challenges of the business. An interest in both business generally and, more specifically, the company and industry they are working in is essential.

People skills

The law is a service industry. Communication and social skills matter for both in-house and those in private practice. However, for in-house lawyers, there is a greater focus on clear communication, with junior counsel more likely to be required to advise very senior colleagues.

Broad legal knowledge

Because they are sometimes the only legal professional in the company, in-house lawyers are often assumed to be experts in more than just the area they have specialised in. To gain the knowledge they might lack, in-house counsel must be motivated and resourceful to find the information they need and answer potentially difficult questions.

6.      Colleagues

One of the main ways in which private practice differs from working within an in-house department is the people you work with. Whereas in law firms lawyers will almost always be working with other lawyers, the majority of people in-house solicitors work with have non-legal backgrounds. Some may find that, without the moral support of other solicitors or a larger in-house legal department, working in-house can be a lonely position.

Both in-house work and private practice provide lawyers with different, yet equally fulfilling experiences. For some, the promise of a varied workload, greater commercial involvement and more predictable working hours that in-house positions offer is appealing. However, this doesn’t suit everyone, and many lawyers are tempted by the opportunity to develop expertise in a particular legal field in exchange for a more attractive remuneration package.

At Realm, we primarily secure hires with private law firms but sometimes work with commercial organisations to recruit for in-house positions. Visit our jobs page to explore our latest opportunities and find your perfect career match.

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