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Working in-house versus private practice

Working in-house versus private practice

Marie Ade

03/08/2022

Reading time: three minutes

When applying for jobs, internships, or training contracts, you may have come across two different routes: working as an in-house lawyer or in private practice. Working in-house involves representing a single client (eg, corporate, public sector, charities etc) whereas private practice lawyers are outsourced, advising multiple clients. As the number of in-house lawyers has been rising in the past few years, this blog will outline what the role involves, helping you decide whether this route is particularly appealing to you. Even if you choose to follow one of these routes, you can still move from being a private practice lawyer to working in-house, and vice versa, later on. 

Why would organisations prefer to have their own in-house team? 

An in-house department may be more cost-effective and convenient than outsourcing lawyers. In-house lawyers are also integrated into the organisation so they thoroughly understand the business, its aims, and are well-placed to make strategic decisions. 

What's expected of an in-house lawyer? 

Given that in-house lawyers are surrounded by non-legal experts who depend on their advice, they must simplify and even informally relay complex legal concepts, framing it in the business context. This means looking at how legal issues may impact the organisation’s structure and goals. Moreover, in-house lawyers not only carry out legal work, but also make decisions, assess risks, negotiate, and contribute to business management. They need to understand their organisation and the industry thoroughly; therefore, in-house lawyers, especially those working for corporate companies, must be extremely commercially adept. Senior in-house lawyers may also need to know about people development, and administrative and operational aspects of the business. 

There's more information on comparing the in-house and private practice route in this LCN Says by in-house lawyer Annabel Akintomide.

The knowledge expected of an in-house lawyer may depend on the size of the department. A larger organisation may employ multiple lawyers who each specialise in certain areas (similar to working at a law firm, except advising only one client), whereas those working for a smaller company may need to have more comprehensive, general legal knowledge in different legal areas. This differs from private practice, where lawyers begin to specialise early on (think of how training contracts seats are typically structured). Therefore, training in-house may give you a chance to explore more areas of the law. 

However, working as an in-house lawyer doesn't mean that you must know every domain of the law in extreme detail; rather, you'll be expected to research and grasp legal areas that you may be unfamiliar with. This means that in-house lawyers need to be adaptable, especially as new issues arise within the company. Even if an organisation has its own in-house department, they can still engage external lawyers when needed. In these cases, the in-house lawyers can decide how to best implement the advice in a way that aligns with their organisation’s goals. 

The features of working in-house 

Long-term impact of legal work: In-house lawyers have an opportunity to see the result and the impact of the legal work they do for their employer, whereas private practice lawyers may only work on specific deals/transactions and not see the long-term impact on the client’s business. 

Variety of work and specialisation: Those eager to experience and research new areas of the law, or those that are unsure of which area(s) to specialise in, may find working in-house attractive. Alternatively, if you're passionate about a certain company or want to work in a certain industry, going in-house may be a good option. 

Career progression: It may appear that in-house legal departments have a flat structure, not allowing much room for career progression, especially because the number of senior roles tend to be limited. However, in private practice, reaching partnership level may be just as difficult.

Clients: Private practice lawyers may be working simultaneously for different companies within their area(s) of expertise. But unlike law firms, in-house lawyers don't need to seek and retain clients. Some may prefer having a diverse range of clients who operate in different industries, whereas others like to work for a single organisation. 

For more on working as an in-house lawyer, read 'In-house training contracts and careers'.