What is the role of the in-house lawyer?

In-house lawyers work for organisations in commerce and industry, the public sector, the third sector and legal consultancy.

You could be a sole lawyer or part of a small central team. Some organisations employ large numbers of lawyers in different locations, including internationally.

Your in-house career options

Whether you work in the private, public or third sector, as an in-house lawyer, you’ll provide three core services. Summarised as "CAT", these are:

  • Contracts: you’ll act for the organisation in relation to its commercial arrangements. These will vary depending on the nature of the organisation;
  • Advice: you’ll have an advisory role across a range of the organisation’s activities, from mergers and acquisitions, through advertising to regulation; and
  • Training and education: be ready to educate and, perhaps, train business colleagues about relevant legal issues so they can deal with some matters without always consulting your team.

In providing these services, you’ll be fulfilling two key purposes:

  • Keeping the organisation compliant with its legal obligations and aware of its legal risks; and
  • Helping the organisation achieve its wider strategic objectives. You’ll be asked for advice on how the law affects activity and future plans.

Once it understands the legal framework and risks, the organisation can then set its tolerance to those risks and manage them. This is sometimes called Risks at Tolerance ("RAT") and may well form part of your organisation’s risk management framework. It could be said that you’re providing "CATs to control the RATs".

Different types of in-house role

Depending on the organisation and your level of experience and expertise, you may find yourself in a specific role within the legal team, such as a:

  • Junior lawyer, working with experienced colleagues to support the organisation generally, or in a specific area like finance agreements, new products or brand protection;
  • Subject matter expert, with expertise in one or more specific areas of activity. Examples include EC directives and the regulatory framework;
  • Business partner, where your role is to focus on relationships and improving service delivery;
  • Team manager with responsibility for managing other lawyers and, perhaps, non-lawyers; and
  • Head of Legal or General Counsel, with responsibility for the legal and, possibly, other functions.

In some large organisations, these roles can represent a typical career progression.

Of course, these roles are also often blurred or combined, particularly in smaller legal teams. So, you could be a manager, a subject matter expert and a business partner all rolled into one.

Common skills

Each of these roles calls for its own unique set of skills and aptitudes. However, while all in-house legal roles have different characteristics, there are some that are common to all roles and levels of experience. These include:

  • Legal knowledge: you’ve got to know the relevant law;
  • Business knowledge: you’ll need to learn how the organisation and the sector it operates in work;
  • Application skills: you need to be able to combine your legal knowledge with your business knowledge to work out what law matters to which parts of the business, when, how and how much so that you can build the CATs to help the business to control the RATs;
  • Customer service: you must be responsive and proactive;
  • Communication skills: you need be clear, concise, and user-friendly when writing to, and speaking with, colleagues.
  • People skills: emotional intelligence is vital in any in-house role.


In-house practice is extremely varied. It differs from private practice in many ways. As an in-house lawyer, you may well have a wide range of roles throughout your career, each with their own requirements. As you grow into each role, you’ll develop a broad range of legal, commercial and people skills.

Please read the following commentary from Janice More:

There are many different roles for lawyers in-house ranging from subject matter experts such as IP lawyers, to generalists (who are expected to know at least something about many things or to know where to find the answer if they don’t know it), to compliance specialists who are focused on ensuring the business knows what they need to do to be compliant.

As stated in the article, there are roles across the commercial, public and third sector, but what they all have in common is that in most cases they are acting for one client (the business they are employed by) and their role is to facilitate the achievement of the goals of that organisation legally.

Key skills for success are the ability to prioritise, manage multiple issues, and communicate simply and to the point. In my experience too, the ability to be decisive and to provide a solution is crucial.

One of the biggest gripes from business colleagues in my experience is any response from an in-house lawyer which describes the pros and cons but does not recommend or specify what the lawyer believes the solution/correct path forward is.

Here are a few comments from Anthony Inglese:

Another helpful note, covering as it does the actual work done in-house, the skills practised and the roles performed.  The following points also occur to me:

The work.  In my world Advice would come a long way ahead.  Why doesn’t Litigation feature?

The first thing that strikes many people about going in-house – and one of its main attractions -  is the move from being a specialist to a generalist, to being a lawyer who has to advise on a much wider range of issues than specialists in law firms.  And as someone has just put it in an interview I have conducted with him, the barrister sees the case but the in-house lawyer sees the whole issue of which the case is just a part.

In relation to the subject of  “Common Skills” there could be added expressly something about being strategic.  It’s implied elsewhere  but it might help to draw it out further.

The word “proactive” is vitally important; the in-house lawyer has to give advice wherever it is needed, even if it is not sought or wanted. 

Also,  the “people skills” sentence is also vital.  Words like “building good relationships” with all colleagues could also be added?