Skills and behaviours you will need - early career

If you’re a junior lawyer considering your career options, this article will give you a feel for what to expect in an in-house legal role. We look at the pros and cons of being in-house and highlight some differences with private practice.

Working in-house can provide a rewarding career, but it’s not for everyone. Developing self-awareness and knowing what to expect if you opt for an in-house role will help you decide if it’s the right path for you. Our subsequent articles on skills and behaviours for more experienced lawyers and for those in the General Counsel role, look beyond the early stages and give you a career-long overview of the in-house option.

Making the decision to go in-house

Before committing yourself to an in-house legal role, you'll want to consider whether it's right for you. There are some material differences from private practice. Fortunately, moving between in-house and private practice is increasingly common so, whatever you choose, it's not setting your career options in stone.

In-house practice can be varied and exciting, opening up opportunities, including outside the law, that you may never have contemplated. At the same time, it can be less stable in that businesses and organisations change, merge and discontinue. So you should be prepared for working for more than one organisation, perhaps in different legal roles. Then again, private practice is also more volatile than it once was because of changes in the legal market in recent years.

Whatever your preference, supplement your view with feedback from informed and trustworthy colleagues. If you have a coach or mentor, even better.

First impressions - what to expect from day one

When you first move in-house, you’ll notice some differences from private practice. It may seem friendly and 'real world'. You'll have a sense of making a contribution to the organisation. You may appreciate the absence of time-sheets to complete and of people auditing your work to the degree you've been used to.

On the other hand, it may feel more unstructured (and less hierarchical) than you're used to. You'll have to be more autonomous and flexible in your approach. You'll have a lot of non-legal material to get to grips with as you learn about the organisation and its business. While people will be friendly, they'll have little interest in the finer detail of the law. Rarely will the in-house lawyers be at the heart of the organisation's activity compared with colleagues in, say, product and business development, sales and marketing and finance. And you'll be viewed as an 'expense' to the business rather than as a 'fee earner'.

IT and other systems, which are geared up for the organisation’s core processes, may be unfamiliar and not focused on the legal team's work. Similarly, you may have less access to research and other legal materials.

Getting absorbed into the in-house culture

All organisations have their own culture which they work hard to maintain and develop. It really helps to embrace the culture and play as full a part as you can in the life of the organisation. It'll also help get you known.

It’s also why it is really important to try to get a feel for the culture of the organisation and of the legal team in a company before you join it from research, interviews, talking to friends and colleagues who know the business and/or the legal team. You need to feel a good "fit" with the work and the team and the company!

If you've joined a commercial company, you'll soon become absorbed by the business activity, such as launching new products or services and achieving business targets. As you become more involved, it can be very rewarding to see how legal advice or other input from you or your team contributed to a real business achievement. Similarly, if you are with a government or public body you'll get great satisfaction from seeing a policy outcome where your legal advice played an important part.

In-house roles can be hugely rewarding but require you to adapt and develop your legal training to embrace new business skills and organisational cultures.

Conclusion

Discover what working in an in-house legal team entails and whether it's the right choice for you.