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In-house legal departments
There are around 25,000 lawyers working in house in England and Wales, with around 14,700 in the private sector. This group is made up of solicitors and barristers, many of whom have opted to move into industry from previous careers in private practice. There are as many different specialist roles in industry as there are in private practice. In-depth specialist legal knowledge gained in private practice is often what the employer will be buying from its in-house lawyers. A construction company may look to hire a good legal mind to oversee its planning and environmental workload, just as a City financial institution may require a lawyer with broad experience of banking and capital markets.
Obviously the nature of the work is dependent upon the type and size of each business organisation, and on the role that is specified. For instance, BT employs hundreds of lawyers in its legal department, which is made up of individual specialists covering many disciplines, from intellectual property and patents to telecommunications and media law. In contrast, smaller companies will often employ just one in-house lawyer who would probably have a much wider brief. In this instance, whatever the nature of the company's business, the in-houser will be expected to provide a full legal and contracts service, and have a good knowledge of company and employment law. In addition, there will be the responsibility of ensuring that the company is at all times compliant with the relevant laws governing its day-to-day operation. In-house lawyers are also usually responsible for instructing and managing outside legal counsel – and for controlling the ensuing legal costs.
Although commercial organisations are usually the main employers of in-house lawyers, an increasing number of non-profit making bodies (eg, charities and trade unions) are hiring legal advisers to work in house. One interesting aspect of working as a lawyer within a non-profit-making organisation is that many of its legal concerns relate to its own particular interests, in addition to the general laws that affect other companies.
Why be an in-house lawyer?
Whatever the variation, many in-house lawyers seem to prefer the hands-on commercial activity of working in industry and for one 'client', to the quite different pressures of private practice. The very long hours often demanded of solicitors in commercial private practice is often enough to provoke interest in an alternative career, even if that means giving up the dream of financial bounty associated with partnership at the top firms.
In recent years the contribution made by in-house lawyers to the success of companies has become more highly valued. As a result, with commercial acumen and a good legal mind, in-house lawyers often move swiftly through the ranks of corporate management into senior boardroom jobs.
As for training in house, compared to private practice, there are relatively few in-house training contracts available. However, an increasing number of companies are taking on trainees, including Vodafone and EDF Energy. If training in industry is your preferred option, you may like to contact either the Solicitors Regulation Authority or the Commerce & Industry Group for a list of organisations that offer training contracts. Otherwise, you should contact companies that you're interested in direct for more information.
In the beginning, be prepared to earn less than those in successful commercial private practice. But as head of a legal department or as company secretary, you could easily expect to earn well over £100,000, with the additional benefits of working for a major company (eg, pension, company car, healthcare schemes and share options). At the top end, high-flying senior lawyers are increasingly recruited into very senior boardroom jobs at major international corporations.
How to apply
Jobs are advertised in the legal press (including the Law Gazette, Legal Week and The Lawyer) and the national newspapers (in particular The Times). There is also a wide array of websites for legal recruitment.
The Law Society Commerce & Industry Group (C&I Group) represents solicitors in industry, while the Bar Association for Commerce, Finance and Industry (BACFI) is its counterpart for barristers in employment. Further information and careers guidance should be available from both organisations.
Bar Association for Commerce, Finance and Industry
PO Box 4352
Beds LU6 9EF
Telephone: 01525 222244
Commerce & Industry Group
5 High Street
Stockport SK1 1EG
Telephone: 0161 480 2918