With these differences in mind, this article considers, in general terms, some of the main differences (and similarities) between working in-house and working in private practice. 

1. There’s only one client 

In-house you’re providing legal services to the organisation the "legal person" that employs you, your client. In practice, you’ll be dealing with its executives, managers and perhaps other employees, who, for the purposes of this article, are also referred to as clients of the legal team as the "legal person" that is the company can only act through the agency of the human people who are its employees. 

Working in-house allows you proactively to develop detailed knowledge about the organisation to a greater degree than may be possible for its external lawyers who are instructed reactively on specific matters, usually for a particular area of the business. This knowledge and your proximity to your client are part of your value as an in-house lawyer. 

Does working for one organisation limit the variety of work? In practice, you’re likely to be working with employees from across the organisation, providing variety in your contacts and, potentially, in the range of work. Your private practice counterparts will be advising a range of different organisations, perhaps in different sectors, although most likely in relation to a particular area of expertise – e.g. litigation or intellectual property. 

The trade off for the in-house lawyer will often be the attraction of becoming closely involved in one organisation, and its employees, and in supporting its activities, changes and developments over a period of time. 

2. Generalist, not specialist? 

Private practice lawyers tend to specialise early in their career. They become experts in one or two areas of law. In contrast; although some of the largest in-house teams do have "Subject Matter Expert" lawyers whose roles look similar in technical content to their private practice counterparts; in-house lawyers have tended to be more generalist, potentially dealing with a broad range of legal issues arising in their organisation - in some ways their role is a bit like General Practitioner doctors. 

Specialisation has impacted the in-house sector too as in-house teams are often structured so that lawyers deal with the legal matters arising in a particular business area. But this could still involve a range of different types of legal work arising from that business area. It really depends on the nature of the organisation and the size of the legal team. But in-house lawyers and their teams certainly need to be adaptable in meeting changes and developments in their organisations. 

Senior in-house lawyers tend to have a wider brief still in that they will have managerial and people development responsibilities and carry out some general business functions as part of their role and, in consequence, they will normally also do a lot less technical legal work. 

3. High levels of client contact 

In-house lawyers are usually surrounded by their "client", in the sense of the organisation’s executives, managers and other employees. This accessibility often means that client contact is informal - verbal or via email. It’s unlikely you’ll get lengthy written instructions when the client can speak at your desk or raise something in a meeting. Many in-house lawyers will be familiar with the ‘What do you think about this?’ post-it note attached to a document. While private practice lawyers can be close to their clients, they’re not co-located and communications may tend to be a bit less informal as a result. 

While accessibility is a real benefit for clients, in-house legal teams often have systems and protocols in place to provide structure and to avoid them being swamped with random unprioritised requests for advice. These systems control when and how (and by whom) the lawyers are engaged and may also provide service standards and a prioritisation approach for the lawyer’s work. 

Nevertheless, many in-house lawyers will be used to (and enjoy) the informal nature of their interactions with non-lawyer colleagues, requiring the lawyers, as it does, to be resolute, resilient and diplomatic! 

4. Seeing the end product 

For many, a key attraction of working in-house is the ability to be closely and proactively involved with the business and to see where and how your legal input contributes to meeting business objectives or protecting the organisation’s assets or interests. This may not be as easy for the external lawyer, who is normally narrowly and reactively involved in a particular business issue without necessarily being able to see the long term impact or the bigger picture. 

Apart from the sense of individual involvement, here are two of the ways in which in-house teams generally seek to make their contribution more tangible:- 

  • By aligning what they do to business objectives. Legal teams want to ensure that they’re focusing their finite resources on the most business critical matters. But this is unlikely to mean only supporting major business projects, as the team is likely to play an important role in legal compliance and business and legal risk management in the organisation. 
  • By articulating their value to the organisation. Measuring value is often not as straightforward as simply determining a bottom line figure to represent the legal team’s contribution to successful business projects or highlighting monies saved through dispute resolution. Nevertheless, legal teams look for credible measures and metrics to highlight where they use their resources and how they contribute to meeting the organisation’s objectives and targets. 

5. Less law, more practical solutions? 

Advice by in-house lawyers is often informal i.e. verbal or by email or telephone, rather than being set out in lengthy reports. And where advice is in writing, clients usually want it to be short and to the point, focusing not on legal detail but rather on impact, risks and solutions. A key skill for the in-house lawyer is being able to explain the law succinctly in a business context, including verbally. This still requires a thorough understanding of the law and relevant issues while emphasising how the information is communicated. It’s necessary to capture attention and get quickly to the key points for the audience in question. This doesn’t mean that the legal detail is never included, only that it should not obscure the key messages. 

Private practice lawyers will recognise these requirements also although their advice is likely to be delivered in a more formal context. 

6. Time recording and billing 

Private practice lawyers are familiar with billing targets and time recording. For some, one attraction of moving in-house may be the prospect of leaving these behind! But will you? Some in-house teams do record time and some even bill their internal clients per activity (rather than simply as a fixed management services recharge from the HQ functions to the relevant departments). The arguments in favour of this may include:- 

  • It clarifies the cost of certain legal work, which may drive the client to look at sensible self-help options, where appropriate; 
  • It helps the client to factor in the likely legal cost for repeat business and is useful in budget setting; 
  • It provides a comparison with external legal cost; 
  • It identifies where the legal team is spending its time, which aids prioritisation and resource allocation; and 
  • It can help the legal team to push back on inappropriate and inefficient uses of its resources by clients. 

However, opponents of internal billing may argue:- 

  • It can dissuade clients from seeking legal input, where this results in increased problems (and cost) further down the road; 
  • Billing and time recording require systems and administration which may not be considered a justifiable cost; 
  • It perpetuates the perception of the legal team as a cost centre, at the expense of a more textured narrative about value; and 
  • If used clumsily and/or for the wrong reasons then it can demotivate legal team members.

The demand for more sophisticated metrics relating to the work of in-house legal teams may result in increased measurement of activity and cost. 

7. Research tools, knowledge and matter management and IT platforms 

Most in-house teams are small compared with commercial law firms. Consequently, they’re unlikely to have the equivalent range of support personnel and tools for research and knowledge and matter management. And any tools will probably need to be compatible with organisational systems and platforms. 

GCs and Heads of Legal understand the benefit of these tools in enhancing teamwork, workflow, the sharing of know-how and achieving consistency. And in highlighting activity and cost and aiding wider client reporting. The challenge is in securing resource for better systems as the legal team is unlikely to be at the head of the queue for IT resource and off the shelf applications may be inappropriate or expensive. Many law firms do have sophisticated systems in these areas, perhaps resulting in increased collaboration in the future. 

8. Learning and development 

Private practice lawyers tend to specialise fairly early in their career with their learning and development focused on building their legal technical expertise. This often includes becoming an expert in a particular industry or sector and the relevant regulatory and political framework. It’s this expertise that clients (including in-house lawyers) are buying when they engage a law firm. 

Learning and development for in-house lawyers also necessarily involves issues beyond the law. In-house legal work can be broad, although increasing specialisation may allow lawyers to focus on particular areas of expertise. In-house lawyers also need detailed knowledge of their organisation and its industry/sector. Senior in-house lawyers also need a skill-set that includes wider business knowledge and understanding, including about business functions and administration and the strategic, people development and operational aspects of leading a team/department. 

In-house teams often have the opportunity to link into their organisation’s training programmes, for example, general business and inter-personal skills. And many legal teams are also involved in training their non-legal colleagues on relevant legal issues, thereby also aiding their own development. 

9. Career progression 

Many law firms adopt a traditional career path with partnership at the top of the career pyramid. Lawyers can expect to progress as they become more experienced, through various career stages below partnership level. As partnership is not a given, some law firms have developed different roles and career paths for those lawyers who, for example, may not want partnership – e.g. Legal Director. 

Large in-house teams are likely to have hierarchical structures to accommodate different roles and levels of responsibility – e.g. subject matter experts and team leaders. There may also be the potential to move to different roles within the team, perhaps in different locations. 

Smaller in-house teams have less scope here and many have flatter structures in line with organisational trends. A challenge for GCs and Heads of Legal is how to provide career progression in a flatter structure, and also where lawyers may be less happy to wait around for new career opportunities. Role rotation may provide a partial solution, coupled with increased responsibilities via involvement in business projects or initiatives. And the underlying culture and values of the team and organisation and the degree to which lawyers feel aligned with them, can be an important factor in retention notwithstanding limited opportunities for ‘promotion’. 

However, the number of senior in-house roles will be limited and it may be unrealistic to expect to retain talented, ambitious lawyers over the long term where senior roles are not available. And, as in any other field, in-house lawyers may simply wish to move to a different organisation, or sector for a fresh challenge. None of which detracts from the case for high quality training and development for in-house lawyers to enhance their skills and increase career options. 

In many ways in-house law can be seen - particularly at senior level - as being a very different role and career path from private practice law. Different but also very interesting, rewarding and satisfying if those differences appeal to you! 

To read our next article titled 'Writing and updating a good CV' click here.

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