What I learnt from the journey in-house and back again

An Associate’s Progress

Rachel Dean

Rachel Dean on 02/05/23

My legal journey has been much like anyone else’s I suspect – a law degree followed by the seemingly never-ending grind of vac schemes and assessment centres, until finally the golden ticket of a training contract arrives. 

Two years later, released into the legal market full of enthusiasm but with more than a little trepidation at actually being the one giving advice, us lawyers qualify and enter the world of fee earning. 

Like many, I had given some thought to working in-house at some point in my career; attracted by having one client and no time recording. I had wanted to build up my experience first, so it was with some surprise that I found myself, at 5PQE and newly promoted, leaving the comfort of my firm to join an e-commerce retail company as their first Property counsel. 

I did my research and tapped relevant contacts for hints and tips to starting life in-house, but the reality was quite removed from my expectations in all respects. A year in-house taught me an immense amount about myself and my skill set (as cliché as that sounds) and also helped me see the legal sector holistically. Moving from private practice lawyer to in-house counsel and back again gave me the unique perspective of both sides of the coin and that, I think, is priceless. 

So, with all that said, here are my top ten takeaways:

1. Do your research

Whilst it is fairly safe to say that the majority of law firms follow a very similar structure (matching routes for promotion and like-for-like expectations with regards to client service and time recording) the same definitely does not apply to in-house teams. There is no one size fits all. Check out LinkedIn, read some business articles about the state of affairs of the company and ask around. Most people are happy to offer some time to discuss their route in-house and how they’ve found the experience. CLL too, offers viewpoints and articles that will help with your decision to move in-house.

2. Build an in-house network

Get to know some people who’ve moved in-house and begin to build your own network of in-house acquaintances. There may be colleagues you’ve worked with in private practice that you could re-connect with. Especially in smaller in-house teams, having others externally you can turn to is really helpful for combating isolation and bouncing ideas.

3. Know (and befriend) your key stakeholders 

Your stakeholders will make or break your experience in-house so it’s crucial that you know who they are, what they do in the company and how you can best support them in your legal role. Be intentional with your time when you first join, make introductions and learn from them about the business – they often have the best insights of where legal can helpfully assist, and where legal may have been seen to ‘burn’ them in the past. One of the hardest challenges of in-house work compared to private practice is demonstrating your worth, so learning about any previous pitfalls or bad experiences should help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Additionally, getting people on side early helps build trust and approachability between the legal function and the rest of the business and means that people will come to you sooner with any concerns – and be open to your advice

4. Enjoy the flexibility and diversity

There is a lot that law firms do well, but often true flexibility and diversity can be lacking – both in the demographic of colleagues as well as the work you get to do. In-house work for me offered a much more dynamic experience, not least because there’s no time recording (woohoo!). More holistically, in-house roles tend to offer a much broader range of queries and deals to be done. There’s thinking time and brainstorming of issues with other stakeholders which can be overlooked in law firms where chargeable time is everything. In-house roles also provide a chance to join different meetings and attend interesting site visits. My advice would be to just get stuck in with anything on offer!

5. Take opportunities to broaden your legal skill set, when available

Due to the nature of a lot of in-house roles, strict legal specialities go out the window and it can often be that you are thrown into a melting pot of legal work. I would encourage seeing the opportunity in this, rather than it negatively watering down your legal specialism! As a property lawyer, my time in-house also enabled me to gain a greater understanding of construction and corporate law and to actually run with small commercial transactions which would never of happen in private practice. I enjoyed this challenge and would definitely say I’m a better lawyer for it. 

6. Be a constant learner

There’s always something new cropping up in-house and I think one of the best approaches you can take is to just embrace being an information and experience sponge. Use the resources available to you (the PLC/lexis etc) but also widen your base. I came across CLL because of wanting to learn more about being in-house. I learnt about how Subrogation and Non-Disclosure Agreements (SNDA’s)’s differ state-to-state in America because someone asked me the question and I learnt about and advised on the running of competitions in the business across the global customer base because, well…I could!

7. Maintain your private practice contacts

You never know what the future holds and the in-house market can be more volatile, especially when the economy is in flux. It’s a solid rule of thumb to leave roles on good terms and maintain a positive network of contacts in the private practice world. And even when you find that perfect fit in-house, you will still always need to outsource some work, so knowing decent lawyers to go to is crucial. It also means you might get an invite to that swanky awards event to be wined and dined!

8. Take responsibility for your own (and the team’s) professional development

Often there’s not the same investment in training and legal resources in-house as you find in the majority of firms, but there will be a budget of some kind available for such things. Find out who to speak to and proactively seek out any training you are interested in, thinking about why it will benefit the team and/or the company to support your business case. You might want to deliver the same training to others in the team or wider stakeholder group to maximise the benefits. Also tap into the plethora of ‘value added’ training which your go-to law firms will inevitably have available or ask for a bespoke session on your company’s current pinch point. Likewise, sign up for the many webinars, breakfast events and business development evenings available which can further boost your CPD, as well as broadening your network.

9. Remove your ‘risk-averse’ cap and live a little

As lawyers we LOVE to caveat everything we say and put limitations around all the advice we give. It’s the nature of our trade and ultimately, it’s what we’re paid for – within a firm or in-house. My time in-house taught me that what most stakeholders want more from us are sound commercial suggestions which allow them to do as much of what they want as possible. In comparison to private practice, in-house work requires a ‘yes you can’ attitude and the more you can say yes to, the more stakeholders will accept the times you do have to give a hard no. 

10. Don’t take it personally!

It’s rare in private practice for clients to completely disregard our advice, in large part I think because they see the very real value of it on their invoices! When you are in-house however, you are likely to find that stakeholders may ignore your urgent deadlines, not listen to your carefully constructed comments on their contracts and just run with their own plans. In those moments step away from your desk, take a beat and try not to take it personally.

Provided you’ve set out the risks of disregarding your voice of legal reason, the commercial calls stakeholders make (and any consequences stemming from those calls) will be on them. It’s not all doom and gloom though, because if you’ve managed to befriend your stakeholders, are less risk averse and more commercial with your advice from the get-go you’re likely to find that the business listens and actions what you advise. 

So, there you have it. My top ten takeaways from my time in-house.

However long or short your stay on the other side or private practice, the in-house world offers a wealth of learning and opportunities and is well worth the adventure! 

Whether you’re already long in the tooth as an in-house lawyer or just now considering it as a career move, CLL have plenty of other Viewpoints and Articles to help you in the role, so take a few minutes to have a look around!

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