Why go in-house?
LSJ edit team | 15 January 2018
Some of the benefits of in-house that set it apart from private practice include:
- Potential for increased job satisfaction. You can become commercially involved and see where the law fits in to broader commercial aims. You will see how your work relates to the business, how you can add value and you will become involved in making business decisions. Also, you often can escape those dreaded billable hours.
- Broader knowledge. Instead of working with other lawyers, your daily interactions are likely to be with a team of people from different areas of the business such as marketing, engineering or IT. This means you will learn from colleagues in other disciplines.
- A more diverse career path. By taking on non-legal responsibilities (e.g. company secretary, risk management, compliance or even a commercial role) you can take your career in more diverse directions. Keep in mind, though, that this amplifies the challenges in maintaining independence and integrity.
- Better work/life balance (but not always). Some in-house lawyers find the holy grail of work/life balance, others will tell you they have never worked harder. Whether or not you can achieve it will usually depend on the industry you’re working in (e.g. financial services will usually be more demanding than the not-for-profit sector) and the structure of the in-house legal function (see below). Either way, the opportunities for flexible working are probably greater in-house than in private practice.
Despite these advantages, in-house practice may not be for you if:
- You find requests for off-the-cuff advice difficult. As an in-house lawyer, colleagues will stop you up in the hallway, the kitchen, anywhere they can track you down (even the loo!). You can run but you can’t hide.
- The structure of the legal team you’re looking at joining is not right for you (e.g. it’s too large to allow you to do a variety of work or it’s too small to give you a clear internal career path). There is lots of variety in structure of in-house teams, so work out what suits you before you make the move.
What skills do you need?
Like any lawyer, in-house practitioners need sound analytical and legal skills. However, there are some skills and characteristic elements that stand out:
- Commercial savvy. This means understanding the business (including having a high degree of financial literacy) and helping your employer achieve their objectives with the legal risks and requirements involved.
- Finding solutions, not problems. Of course you’ll need to identify the problems, but you also need to have solutions. And make sure they’re practical – sometimes non-legal solutions can fix legal problems.
- Interpersonal skills. To work in-house you need concise, plain English communication skills. You will have to elicit the information you need from colleagues to capture their commercial requirements. You’ll also need the ability to get your point across succinctly and in a way that’s easy for non-lawyers to understand.
- Project management. Increasingly, in-house lawyers are responsible for making sure legal work comes in on time and under budget. They also have an important role to play in managing external counsel.
- Teamwork. Most in-house work is team-based, so you’ll need to get along with your colleagues and have the ability to work collaboratively to achieve a common end.
- Integrity. In-house lawyers often have to hold firm when under pressure to change their advice or position. Being a trusted advisor means being respected for independence and judgement. If you develop a reputation for finding solutions, then on the occasions when you need to put your foot down people are more likely to accept and respect that.
- Responsiveness and the ability to prioritise. Remember one of the advantages for the corporation of having in-house lawyers is speed. You’re right there and know the business and that should be reflected in your turnaround.
Different structures for in-house legal functions
In-house practices come in many shapes and sizes and the different structures are likely to suit people with different temperaments and priorities. Some things to consider when you’re looking for an in-house role are:
- What type of work does the in-house legal department mainly do? Is it litigation, contractual or regulatory? Does it do most of the work in-house or does it use external lawyers?
- Does the practice consist of a sole in-house lawyer or small team where you get to be either a jack-of-all-trades or a conduit for farming out work to a panel of external lawyers?
- Is the practice a large team where you are likely to be specialised in one or two areas?
- What is the reporting line/corporate structure? To whom does the General Counsel report and how could this affect legal independence?
- What is the corporate culture regarding lawyers? Are they seen as a necessary evil or a valued part of the business?
- What resources are available to the in-house legal team, both internally and externally?