Why and when should I move in-house as a lawyer or paralegal?
Part of our series: A guide to moving in-house as a lawyer
A recent report by the SRA found that, regardless of the size of the legal team, most lawyers gravitate towards in-house work to gain greater commercial insight, to broaden and/or improve their workload, to work fewer total hours, and to seek a better work-life balance with a reduced likelihood of holiday or weekend disruption.
A steady rise in the numbers of lawyers moving in-house in the past ten years is interconnected with two important developments:
– The increased difficulty of making partner in commercial law firms, mainly due to the significant reduction in numbers of equity partners to assistants in an effort to increase profitability.
– Commercial organisations becoming increasingly aware that the value of in-house lawyers is not only in reducing total legal spending, especially in times of recession and financial uncertainty, but in accelerating business decision-making, improving management choices, and reducing risk.
However, for some in-house work may not be as appealing as private practice. First, the pay is unsurprisingly less than for commercial law firms: in-house lawyers are commonly paid 10% less than their law-firm colleagues, and this wage difference only increases at partnership level. In addition, the reality in practice for many in-house lawyers is working similar hours to private practice lawyers in addition to taking work home. SRA statistics report that although, on average, in-house lawyers work 48 hours a week, around 35% of those employed by private organisations work more than the 48 hours while a small but significant proportion find themselves working 60 hours. Finally, since in-house teams tend to be smaller and flatter in structure than private practice, chances of real organic promotion tend to be limited.
Despite this, for 77% of in-house lawyers a return to private practice was either not very or not at all likely. For many, the reason to move is tightly woven around an understanding that the modern day in-house lawyer is integrally involved in the running of the business, impacts on everyday decision-making, and thus adds real value and contributes to the business bottom line.
When considering the employment market and your future career plans, therefore, keep in mind that the “elevated demand for in-house lawyers will continue for the foreseeable future regardless of what happens with the UK economy”
When should I move in-house?
Since going in-house may be too overwhelming and difficult directly after qualification, the great majority of in-house positions are aimed at lawyers with 2-6 years PQE, the general consensus being that an in-house career should only be followed after having gained at least a couple of years of private practice experience. In this way, training and working at a commercial law firm before making the decision to go in-house ensures lawyers receive a solid grounding in commercial law, develop business insight, and acquire client exposure.
In addition, because in-house teams’ Heads of Legal generally consider a period of post-qualified practice essential when considering potential applicants, completing traditional training and staying at the same firm for a couple of post-qualification years also opens up the option of securing a secondment with corporate clients in order to test the waters and confirm if working in-house is really for you.
Therefore, given that lawyers with more than 6 years PQE are faced with “fewer roles available commensurate with experience”, it’s important not to leave it too long if you think an in-house position is the right direction for you. At 3-5 years PQE, you’ll have substantial practice experience and companies can still be competitive on salary. Saying that, since an international trend nowadays appears to be that clients are becoming “increasingly keen to consider more junior level lawyers, with the prime time for a first in-house move being around 18 months PQE”, it´s definitely worth doing your research and putting the feelers out early.
You can read our other tips for lawyers considering moving in-house here:
– Special feature: In-house lawyers and legal privilege.