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In-house training contracts and careers

updated on 05 April 2022

Does the idea of interesting and varied work, an excellent salary and a good work/life balance appeal? Becoming an in-house lawyer could be your perfect vocation. We spoke to those in the know, including several qualified lawyers and an in-house solicitor apprentice about what it means to work at the very heart of your client.

Reading time: 11 minutes

“What do in-house solicitors do? Are they better paid than their private practice counterparts? How do you become one?” These are questions that regularly crop up among our readers and it can seem that information on getting into the in-house side of the solicitors’ profession is quite thin compared to the wealth of information available on the traditional training contract-private practice route.

Here are key facts from the latest statistics gathered by the Law Society and reported in 2022:

  • As of July 2020, the number of in-house lawyers had grown by 1%, with the in-house sector representing 24% of all practising certificate (PC) holders. So, the in-house sector is a significant one.
  • The share of PC holders working in-house was nearly 24% in 2020 – 19.9% were men and 27.1% were women.

The following diversity stats were reported by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2017

  • Around 1.5% of in-house lawyers have a disclosed disability, and 18% are from an ethnic minority background, including 11% Asian, 3% Black, and 2% multiple/mixed ethnicity and 2% from other ethnicity groups. More than 60% of ethnic minority in-house solicitors work in private sector organisations.

Going in-house offers the chance to operate in interesting commercial environments on a variety of legal issues, be well paid and have time for a life outside of the office. Usually, the company you work for will need many varied legal needs met – for example, in any given week, you may have to advise on:

  • employment law relating to staff conduct;
  • property law relating to leasing or buying premises;
  • copyright law relating to the company’s intellectual property; or
  • general commercial law relating to contracting with third parties for goods or services.

There will almost certainly be occasions where your job is to liaise with third-party law firms on legal matters that require specialised expertise. The sheer scope is one of the biggest drawcards of this type of career. 

In-house training contracts

There are several companies that are authorised to provide in-house training contracts, although the number remains relatively small. On LawCareers.Net, the Government Legal Profession is the biggest employer that comes up when you do a search for in-house training contracts, but the national government is joined in the list by several district and borough councils, as well as banks and commercial companies. While there are certainly more out there, many employers tend not to advertise their trainee positions too widely, so researching the opportunities can take skill and time.

To search for in-house training contracts on LawCareers.Net, head to the training contract search page, select ‘+Show more filters’ and choose ‘In-house’ from the ‘Type of practice’ drop-down list.

Emma Lilley, sole legal counsel at SD Worx and founder of In-house Potter, talks about her experience training in-house, and addresses the notion that all aspiring lawyers should train in private practice before making the move to in-house. While training in private practice first is perhaps the most typical route, Emma is keen to emphasise that this is not essential: “Wherever you train, you must meet the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s competences at the same level as those training in private practice. Despite being in a different environment, you can expect to receive the same level of training.”

Follow legal blogger and in-house lawyer Emma Lilley on TikTok for some more insights into working in-house!

She adds: “In-house training is much more flexible because the organisation you work for is unlikely to be getting ready for its next cohort of future lawyers to start. I was able to knock six months off my training because I had paralegal experience prior to starting.”

Meanwhile, Holly Moore – in-house solicitor apprentice at ITV – explains how she made the decision between in-house and private practice: “I interviewed within both in-house legal departments and law firms, and loved the creativity, independence and responsibility that an in-house solicitor apprenticeship offered. I wanted to make a real impact, work at the heart of a business and learn from industry experts. My subsequent research and interview experience helped to make my decision!”

Holly became the first in-house solicitor apprentice in the UK six years ago. While the traditional training contract route remains most popular, in-house training is on the rise.

Taking on a similar format to the traditional training contract, in-house training involves training within a business’ or organisation’s legal department instead of within a law firm and offers the chance to expand on your legal knowledge in a number of practice areas, as well as an understanding of the particular business. “I love being able to immerse myself into the business, and tailor my legal advice to each team in a different way”, Holly says.

She adds: “My colleagues come from a multitude of diverse backgrounds, with incredible experiences and opinions. It has been a privilege to learn from professionals who are experts in their field, and to be surrounded by inspiring colleagues every day.”

Having been training in-house for six years now, Holly is approaching qualification. Talking about her route into the legal profession, she says: “This is against the norm, but with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), graduate solicitor apprenticeships and more in-house training contracts, I am certain this route will become more popular!”

For more information on the SQE head to LawCareers.Net’s SQE hub. Plus, if you’re booked in to take your SQE1 exams, read Holly’s advice on how she aced them as part of the first cohort.

Training in-house has given Holly the chance to expand, not only her legal knowledge, but also her business and industry knowledge. On top of building valuable skills to ensure she becomes a “strong, independent lawyer”.

Holly goes on to speak about the realities of working in-house and how rewarding her career is: “Seeing something that you have worked on since its inception, make it onto the screen, or into a product or a service, is so unbelievably rewarding. I feel a real passion not only for the law, but now for the business and industry I work in.”

Since starting out, Holly has had the “opportunity to work with every legal team within the business, to learn how they interlink, and to work on innovative legal projects, and advise all teams within the business on commercial, intellectual property, compliance, licensing and more.” She describes it as “exciting, fulfilling and extremely fast paced”.

At the coalface

While there are in-house training contracts available, it is true to say that most in-house lawyers begin their careers in private practice and then make the switch, lured by better hours and attractive remuneration. So, as a fully-qualified lawyer, what’s it actually like to work in-house?

For Anthony Kenny, who is assistant general counsel corporate and CBS at GSK, his move was prompted by his experiences as a trainee when he worked in-house for seven months: “I had a great time and decided that my future was to work in-house.” He acknowledges that “in the business world, cash is king and legal is often viewed as a major cost to the business and therefore of less value than the revenue generators. However, the negatives are more than compensated by the positives.”

One of the best parts of the job, says Anthony, is finding “talented people and watching them develop and progress”.

What makes in-house work interesting?

Tamasin Dorosti has been a solicitor with the University of the Arts London for nearly two and a half years. Prior to training, Tamasin spent a significant amount of time gaining in-house experience in both the private and public sectors; Tamasin worked as a paralegal in one of the UK’s largest research councils and then spent two years on the Vodafone Group Discovery Graduate Programme in both the Enterprise and Compliance legal functions. She then completed her training contract in private practice and on qualification moved to the newly formed non-departmental public body, UK Research and Innovation before moving into the higher education sector.

Tamasin describes her work in-house as very varied and broadly centred on contracts and general commercial work with a greater focus on intellectual property in her current role. Tamasin acknowledges that “the variety and breadth of in-house work can be challenging as it is rare for a day to go by without a new query or project coming in which you haven’t encountered before, but that’s ultimately what keeps the role interesting as well as providing a constant flow of learning and development opportunities”.

In each of her in-house roles Tamasin has advised a variety of internal clients such as scientists, physicists, sales account managers and academics who all operate very differently and have their own interests and motivations. Tamasin explains: “The key is to get to know your client and what drives them. It is crucial that you make an effort early on to understand what their objectives are and from that you can assess how you can best help them to achieve those goals. The role of the legal team is always to support the business and its vision and be an enabler not a blocker.”

For Tamasin, one of the best things about working in-house is proximity to the client: “I really enjoy learning about the operational side of the business and how things work and I am naturally a very inquisitive person. Being in-house allows me to get stuck in to the core function of the business and it’s gaining that knowledge and understanding that enables me to provide effective and tailored legal advice”.

Client secondments

Another way to get a taste of in-house life is as a trainee at a firm on secondment to a client – something which is very common, especially within the larger firms. Tamasin completed a six-month secondment with the UK Law Societies Brussels Office when she was a trainee. “This wasn't a traditional secondment in the sense that the Law Societies' office serves to represent the interests of the legal profession and its members rather than being a 'client' of the training firm,” Tamasin explains.

She adds: “This opportunity offered a variety of experience and exposure to areas of legal practice from a different angle.” Tamasin was given the chance to work on following the adoption and implementation of GDPR through the different European institutions and looked at what the new requirements would mean in practice for UK law firms.

These opportunities are incredibly valuable for aspiring lawyers considering the in-house profession. Tamasin explains that this secondment differed from her previous in-house experience because she was working in the lobbying environment “which was completely new territory.” During the secondment, she learnt to adopt “a different mindset when tackling legal issues that ultimately gave me a much more rounded experience as a trainee.”

Follow me?

If the experiences of Anthony, Emma, Holly and Tamasin sound up your professional street, you will be keen to discover how you too can take it in-house. The answer will depend a bit on when is the best time to jump the fence or which path best suits you.

Anthony’s view is that students should consider the in-house option, but only in the context of a five or 10-year plan: “Knowing where they want to be in a few years’ time will help them to decide whether working in private practice first is best. I believe that has lots of benefits, including learning key skills such as the importance of selling and customer care. Equally, in-house training has many positives, including learning more deeply about commercial drivers, being given more responsibility earlier, and having more opportunities for management and leadership.”

If, like Holly, you’re confident that training in-house is the right path for you, there are a few skills that are crucial, including drive and dedication, genuine enthusiasm for law and business, commercial acumen, and both teamwork and leadership qualities. Not dissimilar from those that most law firms look for, but Anthony explains that the skills you need as you progress in-house are slightly different from those required in private practice. Anthony says: “You also need finance skills – how does your business make or lose money – and communication and influencing skills. Being able to communicate well in PowerPoint is as important as is navigating the political landscape of the organisation!”

Making the decision between in-house and private practice won’t be an easy one. Ultimately, you spend a lot of your waking day working, so your job needs to be one that you find rewarding and enjoyable. Emma urges aspiring lawyers who are contemplating both routes to make the decision based on their preferences and “not what others are advising, including myself”. She adds: “I’m conscious not to push one route but empower others to decide based on what success looks like to them.”

It’s so important that you identify the route that suits you, your personality and career prospects. “Figure out what you’d be most happy doing and follow that. There are lots of flexible ways to enter the profession now, it’s just about finding the path that’s right for you.”

Meanwhile, Holly encourages those considering a career in-house to ask themselves the following questions:

  • How do you prefer to work?
  • Do you want to immerse yourself in a specific industry/business?
  • Do you want to work for one client or multiple?
  • Do you like a challenge?
  • What are your priorities when training?
  • Do you want to be surrounded by lawyers or a mixture of professionals?

The in-house route should never be considered a “lessor choice” but rather a “different and equal choice”. Mirroring Emma’s advice, Holly says: “Make the right decision for you, and make sure it’s an informed one. Look into every option and weigh up each opportunity with your personal goals, values and aspirations.”

Finding an in-house role

Tamasin spent a lot of time researching in-house training positions which can be tricky to find: “They are out there, and there are many more opportunities now than when I was a paralegal. It is best to get your foot in the door, even if it isn’t in a legal function to start with. Once you are in the organisation you can prove yourself and it will open other doors and opportunities”. 

Some tips on how to find out about in-house training contract opportunities include:

  • online research (particularly graduate careers sites);
  • asking at university careers services;
  • attending presentations or events by in-house teams at universities (something telecoms giant BT does);
  • reading the legal press; and
  • enquiring directly with companies.

As millennial lawyers continue to diversify from the traditional legal career path that essentially boiled down to striving to make partner at a law firm, and businesses look to handle more of their legal work themselves to save costs, in-house opportunities look set to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Olivia Partridge (she/her) is the content producer at LawCareers.Net.