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In House Legal Departments – the Green Grass on the Other Side of the Fence?
How easy is it to move from a solicitors’ firm to an in house legal department? Can anyone do it? Is it an easier life on the other side? Will my stress levels reduce if I work as an in house legal counsel? Will my pay packet go up or down? What benefits are there working in house as opposed to private practice solicitors firms?
Working in house for an organisation, limited company, trade body, educational institution or charity is often considered the holy grail of legal jobs. After all, what could be better than a job that has no external financial pressures, no requirement to put in long hours to generate fee income and no awkward clients?
In House Legal Jobs have perks such as flexible hours, set office hours, benefits in addition to salary, real pensions, small legal teams and more autonomy. These tend to be the reasons solicitors look at them with rose tinted glasses and dream of a future in a legal department rather than in a law firm.
Unfortunately although all the perks above are correct and the day to day work of in house lawyers tends to be quite different to that of solicitors in private practice, it is not all wonderful and in house legal departments tend to be under pressures albeit of a different nature.
How Easy is it to move from a Solicitors Firm to an In House Legal Department?
It is not easy to move from a solicitors firm into an in house legal department for any qualified solicitor. The reason for this is fairly simple and applies both ways – in house legal departments look for in house solicitors, not private practice solicitors.
Working in house tends to require a different mindset and also more generalist experience than a lot of private practice solicitors have. To give you a specific example – a lot of private practice solicitors specialise in one area of law – for example a solicitor working in a corporate finance department will undertake a considerable amount of work involving asset financing and arranging deals. They will have limited experience of reviewing a contract for the supply of photocopiers to company headquarters.
In House Lawyers tend to be jack of all trades. If advice and work is simple, they do it themselves. If it is more complex they outsource it to an external law firm. However they have to experience the work themselves in order to be able to make a decision on this. A shipping solicitor is not likely to know much about a case for unfair dismissal if they have worked their entire career to date in a specialist shipping department undertaking wet shipping law.
So it is not easy to move into in house work from private practice.
Can Anyone Work In House?
Yes. We often get CVs from people who have worked in house their entire career and have no qualifications at all. Some are not qualified solicitors, others are legal executives or partly qualified legal executives. There are some in house legal departments that are staffed by one qualified barrister or solicitor and then 10-15 unqualified staff all undertaking what would be termed “fee earning roles” in a solicitors’ firm.
What these people all have is specific in house experience. In House experience is relevant for other in house roles.
Is it an easier life working In House rather than in Private Practice?
Who knows. What is pretty clear is that a lot of private practice solicitors think so. However we similarly get calls from in house solicitors wanting to make a move into private practice because they are fed up of the in house work.
The reasons for lawyers looking to move out of in house roles are usually:
- To increase their pay packet. Salaries are traditionally lower in house.
- To stop working for one client. Quite often your work in house is sourced from one person or department – for example a manager in the HR department or a senior manager responsible for trademarks. The in house solicitors miss the diversity of private practice.
- Job security. At some blue chip companies staff remain in a perpetual state of uncertainty. The company are planning to relocate to Alaska or merge with another company and close one legal department, profits are down and the company need to cut costs by closing down departments. All of these things happen and are frequent in some business sectors.
- Bored of dealing with the same sector. Unless you are working for a multi-sector company, you will be handling the same cases and issues constantly through your career.
Private practice solicitors usually base their decision to move into In House roles on the basis of the perceived flexible hours that are available and more relaxed approach to working. It is certainly the case that in house solicitors do not tend to work until their more senior colleagues leave the office, which is a fairly common complaint in London city law firms.
In House Legal Departments tend to be situated in more regional locations, whereas commercial law firms are usually located in city centres. This can be viewed as a considerable benefit to solicitors who have spent many hours of their lives commuting into the centre of cities and getting home at ridiculous times of night.
Will My Stress Levels Improve if I work as an In House Legal Counsel?
Not entirely sure. For a good number of years I provided career coaching to solicitors looking to make a change in their professional lives and there was very often a common theme running throughout these sessions.
Stress is often related to a specific part of your job. It is almost always caused either by a colleague making someone’s life a misery or by dissatisfaction with the work someone is doing.
It is usually difficult to determine what is causing stress and indeed whether you are under stress at all. Speaking (or writing) as a former crime solicitor I had no idea at the time I was in practice that my body was under tremendous stress levels – my sleep was interrupted, I felt ill before going into court and I rarely stopped thinking about work. Looking back at my time it was pretty clear that I was suffering very high levels of stress with my work and this affected my personal life as well as my time at the office. Solicitors subjected to extreme levels of stress rarely appreciate it. I have heard comments such as “I feel I am letting my team down if I leave the office at 6pm” and “I know I should be grateful to my boss for giving me the opportunity to work so I can’t leave”.
The first step is to identify the cause of stress and do something about it, rather than make a move elsewhere. Decisions to change jobs are difficult enough without making them for the wrong reasons.
I have coached in house solicitors and barristers with exactly the same issues as private practice lawyers. Their circumstances have been just the same.
Will my pay packet go up or down?
If you are planning a move into an in house legal department to increase your pay it is unlikely to be a successful transition. I have rarely come across solicitors in private practice moving into in house roles and getting a pay rise.
The majority of solicitors in the UK, contrary to popular belief, are very unlikely to earn more than £45,000 a year for the duration of their career. This is because the majority of solicitors work in high street law firms (high street law firms are those acting on behalf of private individuals rather than commercial law firms who handle the affairs of businesses and organisations). High street law firms pay up to £45k per annum but no higher unless you become a partner and invest in the business.
In House Legal Departments pay more than this. A sole in house legal counsel at a medium to larger size company with a turnover of more than £10 million is likely to be earning at least £60,000 a year.
However to become an in house legal counsel you need to be working in a commercial law firm. It is very rare indeed that someone coming from a high street law firm will be successful with an application for an in house legal job. This is because you are very unlikely to have been exposed to any law that is relevant to the work of an in house solicitor.
Anyone coming from a commercial law firm, unless they are working for one of the regional law firms who pay low salaries to local staff in their regional offices, is going to be earning considerably more than the salary ranges indicated for in house roles. The only place in house legal departments tend to trump private practice law firms is with the benefits that go with a role.
We have recently worked on an in house role for a sporting organisation in South Wales and the benefits that were included as part of the package just about filled a sheet of A4 paper. The salary was not particularly high, but law firms in South Wales rarely include many benefits at all with their vacancies.
Generally your salary is not going to go up unless you strike it lucky and come from a high street firm. This is unlikely..
What benefits are there working in house as opposed to private practice solicitors’ firms?
There are a number to list.
- You only ever have one client. The client is your friend, as opposed to someone who consistently complains as to how much money you are costing and how little time you spend on their case or matter. The client is not going to constantly harass you, ask for updates or spend their time being disgruntled about your service.
- You do not have to bill your time for most in house roles. No more 6 minute thinking sessions or trips to the toilet whilst blue sky thinking.
- You tend to work in a small department. There will not be 50 partners, 75 associates and countless colleagues to deal with all the time.
- Most in house legal departments do not expect you to work until everyone else is leaving the office.
- You don’t tend to have work weekends ever.
- In House Legal Department staff expect to take annual leave.
- You will retire one day. When you retire you may even have a pension that is worth something (unlike the senior partner of my first firm who retired after 41 years and then discovered his Equitable Life pension was not worth a lot at all).
- Life usually seems a lot slower working in house. Employees in companies seem to develop procedures over time that may not be the best and most efficient way to complete a task, but until they are told otherwise that is what they are going to do. Our Finance Director is an expert at it…
So if you are still interested in looking at in house department roles, please email us a CV to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do both interim/locum roles and permanent posts. In House Legal Departments tend to call us out of the blue to register vacancies and we have to work the vacancies very quickly indeed. We have worked with a range of companies and organisations from Cardiff Council to the Welsh Rugby Union, from Aspect Construction based in the North West through to Sun Life in Berkshire and Fabricom up in Newcastle. We work with businesses right across the UK and offshore as well. Our consistent success rate, fee structure, donation of 10% profits to charity and efficient service all attract new clients to our offices.
Jonathan Fagan is Managing Director of TP Legal Recruitment and has been working with in house legal departments for over 20 years. Contact Jonathan on 0800 246 5001 or by email to email@example.com to discuss your in house legal team requirements.