Working as an in-house lawyer

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

“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.

The Law Society collects data on the in-house solicitor population every year. Here are key facts from the latest statistics from June 2017:

  • There are around 26,900 solicitors working outside of traditional private practice law firms, so the in-house sector is a significant one.
  • Approximately 58% of in-house solicitors work in the private sector, with the majority of these in financial services.
  • Some 22% of in-house solicitors work in the public sector, with the majority working for government – either at local government level or for the Government Legal Service or Crown Prosecution Service. .
  • In 2015 the average age of in-house solicitors was 42 years old, 56% were women and 15% were BAME.

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 related to staff conduct; property law related to leasing or buying premises; copyright law related to the company’s intellectual property; or general commercial law related 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 draw cards of this type of career. 

In-house training contracts

There are several companies which are authorised to provide in-house training contracts, although the number remains relatively small. On LCN, the Government Legal Service is the biggest employer that comes up when you do a search for in-house training contract, 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, including at Standard Life, many employers tend not to advertise their trainee positions too widely, so researching the opportunities can take skill and time.

At the coalface

While there are in-house training contracts available, it is true to say that most in-house lawyers began their careers in private practice and then made the switch, lured by better hours and attractive remuneration. So, as a fully-qualified lawyer, what’s it actually like to work in-house? Toby Hornett is the former legal director and current learning and development manager at Canon Europe; he describes how he came to make the change: “I realised quite quickly after qualification that I did not want to stay in private practice – mainly for the unpredictability of the working hours, but also as a junior lawyer in a large City firm, I was quite far removed from the business of the clients and struggled to see the impact of my advice. The in-house route allows lawyers to really get to know the business of a company and a sector.”

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.”

Sophie Gould is head of in-house PSL at LexisNexis, and describes why she made the change from private practice to in house: “I did my training and qualified at a small City firm, but realised pretty quickly that I enjoyed the business side of things more than the legal research. I don’t think I really knew you could be an in-house lawyer until that point – it had never been mentioned as a career option at law school. I relished the idea of being able to be part of an organisation rather than always on the outside advising.”

She goes on to describe why going in house is such a rewarding career option: “I think it gives you an amazing opportunity to learn about business and how law works in practice. You get greater and broader responsibility at a much earlier stage in your career and more chance to put your skills into practice. There tends to be less hierarchy in in-house legal teams and the business views you as a member of the team. The one thing you need to ensure is that any team you join has a clear training programme in place for trainees.”

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

The laws of science (and telecoms)

Although now a trainee solicitor at Boyes Turner, Tamasin Dorosti has had a variety of in-house experience covering both the private and public sector through Vodafone’s graduate programme. She began as a commercial paralegal in the legal and commercial department of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory while studying the LPC. She then spent 18 months working in Vodafone’s Group Enterprise Legal team and the legal assurance team in Group Legal, covering anti-bribery and competition law. This involved moving from a small legal department of seven to a global legal department of over 400 lawyers.

Tamasin describes her work at STFC and Vodafone as very varied in both environments and broadly centred on contracts and general commercial work. While at STFC she advised technical clients such as scientists, physicists and engineers, whereas at Vodafone she advised the sales community. Both operate very differently and present their own challenges: “Having worked on commercial contracts in both, the approach to managing risk is very different. This is likely to be attributable to the fact they work in very different markets, sit at very different bargaining positions and fundamentally are driven by very different motivations and interests. The common feature of both, however, is that the legal team needs to ensure the organisation is educated enough to understand when they should be seeking legal advice and that they do so at the right stage. The role of the legal team is always to support the business and its vision.”

She talks us through one of her pieces of work while at STFC: “I was involved with leasing arrangements for a massive telescope in South Africa, where the project’s headquarters are in Manchester. A huge amount of negotiation was involved to ensure all parties were sufficiently protected, especially STFC which was funding the build of the headquarters.” She explains that “being surrounded by cutting-edge science was really exciting”.

Tamasin describes the challenges that can occur when you are speaking different professional languages: “There can be a communication barrier between legal and the wider business. It can sometimes be difficult to get your messages across without sounding like you’re telling the business ‘no, you can’t do that’. I found this even more stark working in a global organisation like Vodafone, as it means there are additional communication barriers such as cultural, language and time differences which you also need to be aware of.”

However, one of the best things about the in-house role is that proximity to the client: “Working within an organisation gives you much greater exposure to how the business works and functions. You really need to understand what clients want and why. In-house, the client is with you; they can drop by your office on the way to the coffee lounge and have a chat. It means you can build up really good relationships and learning about different industries and technologies definitely keeps me interested and challenged.”

Client secondments

Another way of getting 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. When Matt Marshall was a second-seat trainee at Bond Pearce (now Womble Bond Dickinson), he went on secondment to one of the firm’s insurance clients to get a view from the other side of the fence: “I had prepared draft reports to clients in my first seat, so it was interesting to view matters from a different perspective. You have the chance to build a better relationship with the client while on secondment, plus you get to see what they like and don’t like, and gauge what the firm is doing well and what it can improve on.”

Matt’s experiences as a secondee remain one of his professional highlights: “It’s a great opportunity as a trainee to raise your profile and the firm is keen for staff to volunteer for secondments to broaden their skills and cement relationships with clients. It’s easy to say that you understand what clients want, but it’s not until you work alongside them that you fully appreciate what they need from their legal advisers.”

Follow me?

If the experiences of Toby, Anthony, Sophie, Tamasin and Matt sound right up your professional street, you will be keen to discover how you too can take it in house. The answer may depend a bit on when is the best time to jump the fence. Anthony’s view is that students should definitely 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 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.”

Toby is adamant that an in-house career should be pursued only after having done a traditional training contract: “Going in house is definitely a good idea, but not straightaway – do a training contract and try to stay on at the same firm for at least a couple of years post-qualification doing something relevant. However, don’t leave it too long after that if you are sure that in house is the right direction for you.”

Sophie manages Aspire, a free networking, and learning and development group facilitated by LexisNexis for junior in-house lawyers. It has over 200 members and provides legal and soft skills training, as well as an opportunity for its members to network and learn from their peers. She details some of what it has been up to in recent months: “Workshops have covered presentation skills, how to show your value to the business, legal updates on data protection, a drafting workshop and general counsel guest Q&A slots. The group also has various working groups, such as one to create a best practice training contract to help ensure all in-house trainees get gold standard training.”

If you’re determined to train in house, there are a few skills that Miles says are crucial, including drive and dedication, genuine enthusiasm for law and business, commercial acumen, and both teamwork and leadership qualities. Not so different from those that most law firms look for, but both Toby and Anthony agree that the skills you need as you progress in house are slightly different to those required in private practice. Anthony says: “While always maintaining your professional values, it is important to have the mindset of a business partner first and a lawyer second. 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!”

Toby adds: “In house, you don’t have the time to do the perfect job, and your internal clients wouldn’t expect that either. So you need to be able to focus on the key issues and know how to prioritise your time. In private practice, it’s more a question of putting in the hours until the job is done. Another important skill, particularly in a non-regulated industry, is influencing. Senior internal clients are more likely to consult the legal department if they consider it to be in their interests to do so, so you need to be seen a positive constructive part of any business process.”

Finding an in-house role

When her role drew to a close, Tamasin found it hard to track down in-house training positions: “They are out there, but they’re much harder to find. I made lots of enquiries, getting positive feedback from some and advice from others. But it is definitely more effective to go direct to the legal department, rather than through HR if you want to even be considered.”

Miles offers some tips on how to find out about in-house training contract opportunities, including 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 direct 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.

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