What does the role look like - new to in-house

Part of a series of articles about different in-house roles, this piece looks at the new to in-house role. We highlight the main differences between life in private practice and an in-house role and set out six steps to a successful transition.

Moving in-house can be disorienting and a little bewildering. If you’re contemplating this change, plan ahead, prepare a checklist of what you need to learn about your role and create a plan to get settled as early as possible.

Private practice to in-house – making the transition

There are many differences between working in a private practice and working as an in-house lawyer. You’ll find, for example, that:

  • The legal team is one of many departments in the organisation.
  • Legal services are not the organisation’s core business.
  • You’ll work with colleagues from diverse functions and backgrounds.
  • You’re unlikely to have specific legal IT systems.
  • There may be fewer legal research tools available to you.
  • You’ll have fewer support staff.
  • There’s less hierarchy. Many in-house legal teams have flat management structures;
  • There’s more autonomy and you're likely to be liaising directly with in-house clients very early.
  • There will be less emphasis on perfectly crafted advice. Your business colleagues want quick, concise advice, not something that necessarily covers all the bases.
  • It’s less formal. Many exchanges will be verbal and by email, so you’ll learn to make clear when you’re giving formal legal advice (almost nothing that you do will be covered by Legal Advice Privilege and you should expect almost all of what you say and write to be repeated and forwarded).
  • Your colleagues are grappling with business problems and you’ll be expected to offer advice and solutions to their problem - law will often be the least of their worries - if they have thought about it at all.
  • The organisation will have its own technical language and acronyms. It may be confusing at first but you’ll need to learn them.
  • Your value won’t be measured by billable hours, but by how productive, how well you prioritise and how helpful and relevant you are to your colleagues. Work efficiently and collaborate with colleagues to help them achieve their targets.

Six steps to settling in

Follow these six steps to help yourself settle into your new role.

  1. Understand the organisation. Take every opportunity to understand more about the organisation, how its structured, who are the key stakeholders, its business, and the sector - and the commercial pressures facing these.
  2. Understand your team and your levels of authority. Find out where the legal team sits in the organisational structure and the reporting lines. Which business units does the team support and how? Be clear about when and how you can advise colleagues.
  3. Understand the organisation’s "legal map". Get to know what the key areas of legal activity are across the organisation. Is there a priority area or areas in, for example, sales, employment, property deals, mergers and acquisitions, new product marketing, competition law or cross-border sales?
  4. Get familiar with working practices. Are there templates, standard wordings, precedents, checklists and protocols for your work? And if so, are they current and are they appropriate? What reports does the legal team produce and what meetings do you need to attend? Are filters/controls in place about how people access legal team members and resources? What are the team’s key performance indicators and standards? Does the organisation use external lawyers and if so, what do they do and who instructs them?
  5. Keep up to date. How does the legal team maintain and share its knowledge? What systems, tools and training does it have access to? How does it comply with regulatory requirements for lawyers?
  6. Communication. Make your advice and reports relevant and user-friendly by presenting information in a way that non-expert decision makers will understand. Follow a logical structure when writing reports and presentations, use diagrams and other visual aids and avoid technical language and legalese.

Conclusion

You're now part of a non-legal organisation with its own business priorities, language and culture. By taking time to understand the organisation and immerse yourself in it, you’ll make the settling-in period easier and much more enjoyable and you will be making the foundations for a much more successful in-house career.