Your new in-house legal role

Most in-house lawyers move from private practice. This short article highlights some differences between the two and suggests what you can do to settle quickly into your new role. We look at the challenges you’ll face in the first three months and highlight relationship priorities, potential pitfalls and early milestones.

Any new role can be daunting but if you're new to in-house practice, particularly as a junior lawyer, you may want to know what you can do to adjust to the change, particularly in the first few weeks.

Moving from private practice

Working in-house can provide many great career opportunities, some beyond the legal profession.

In-house legal roles vary depending on the type of organisation you're joining and how the legal team is structured. However, you'll probably notice these differences immediately:

  • The legal team will not be at the heart of the organisation;
  • The structure of the legal team is likely to be fairly flat and non-hierarchical;
  • You're unlikely to have bespoke IT resources for case and knowledge management and research or much (if any) secretarial support; and
  • Your interaction with non-legal colleagues will be more regular and informal than you're used to. 

Early priorities

  • Before you leave your old job, make sure your contacts are up to date and that your network knows you're moving and have your new contact details. Work out who in your old firm you may be able to "tap into" for quick bits of guidance and support on areas of law that you do not know well and talk with them before you leave about doing this.
  • Understand how your arrival will be communicated by your new employer. Will it be an organisation-wide announcement and will internal clients be notified? It's useful to know what people have been told about you before you arrive.
  • Organisations have their own language and culture. Acronyms can abound, so don't assume everyone else knows what they mean. Learn the language as you build up your knowledge of the organisation and its people.
  • Your new organisation's induction programme is a good way to build your knowledge of its activities, business cycle and key people. The legal team should also have an induction programme to introduce you to the work, processes and the team. If your formal induction isn't robust, think about how you can build your knowledge quickly, perhaps by attending events and meetings.

The first three months/probationary period

  • You're in information gathering mode. Learn as much as you can about the organisation and, particularly, the role of the legal team in supporting its activities. What do the lawyers do, who are they working for and where do they bring value to the process? Non-legal colleagues may be happy to share their view about what works and what doesn't about the legal service they receive.
  • Define your role, particularly if there are any areas of uncertainty or crossover. Also, establish your priorities with your line manager so you can manage your time properly. Are there any particular goals and expectations that you'll need to meet in this period, which may be probationary? You'll want to maximise your chances of being kept on.
  • Find out as much as you can about the organisation, its business, structure, market, regulation and stakeholders. Look at how its financed and what reports it makes. What is the business cycle in terms of board meetings, AGM, annual reports and other key dates in the organisation's calendar?

Managing up

  • You'll want to make a good impression on your line manager, so learn as much as you can about what they need from you to make their role easier. Are there processes for sharing information with them, such as regular 1-2-1 meetings? If not, suggest one to keep the relationship productive.
  • Establish how the team takes decisions and achieves consistency of approach.

Three months plus

Once you're established, find out about learning and development opportunities. For example:

  • How will your legal and business training needs be met?
  • What opportunities are there to enhance your skills and contribute to the sharing of legal knowledge with business colleagues?
  • How will your own goals and objectives dovetail with those of the legal team and those of the wider business units and organisation? Remember you own your personal development so be proactive and regular in thinking about what you need and in helping your boss to find ways of letting you get that development. If you are reactive then you will be the main culprit for and casualty of the resulting weaknesses in your personal development and career progression.
  • What is the work/life balance in the legal team? And;
  • Is remote working possible?

Conclusion

If you’re moving from private practice to an in-house role, this is an opportunity to use your experience and learn new ways of doing things. Get stuck in and come up with ideas and solutions. Learn about the business, its processes, its culture and personalities. This will help you understand what your new business colleagues need from you. Similarly, be approachable, friendly and clear. If you don't know the answer, don't bluff. Find out! Remember that your personal development and career progression is in your hands - if you are reactive or passive on these points then you are failing yourself. Finally, never assume. Get the facts and analyse. Your analytical skills can be of great value to your business colleagues.