Why more businesses are recruiting in-house counsel - and why young lawyers should consider making the move

Back when I started on the path to becoming a solicitor, I thought that the main route ahead for the vast majority was in private practice.

Gethin Bennett

Gethin Bennett on 17/04/23

Then, after spending almost a year (and then a day-a-week since) on a client trainee secondment at The Royal Mint, I realised that a different (and more suited, for me at least) way of working existed – the in-house counsel. 

What’s the attraction for businesses?

Cost
Whilst, initially, it might seem that paying an annual salary would exceed the usual invoices issued by law firms for work done over time, the reality is that considerable money can be saved by employing a lawyer directly, instead of paying on a project-by-project basis. This may be even more profound post-Covid, when budgets are cut, and external spending is targeted. 

Arguably, you also get more for your money – as opposed to paying £X + VAT for a couple of hours’ work per week, you get an employee who commits all their working time to your interests (who, no matter how much time they spend on the relevant matter, will cost you the same overheads at the end).

Knowledge
Without wishing to disparage any lawyer, I think many of us are guilty of thinking we “know” our clients, inside out. But, given the wide-ranging nature of a solicitor’s client portfolio, it’s nigh-on impossible to fully know and understand the core and crux of the business you represent.

Oppositely, an in-house lawyer lives and breathes that business, across all departments. They’re part of the fibre of the enterprise – being a key asset from initial strategies and concept-creations, to seeing out project outcomes. Similarly, an in-house counsel has the “ears-to-the-ground” benefit – one which often can’t be enjoyed by a private practitioner. 

Linked to that point, because of the fee/ instruction-based system of private practice, in-house lawyers are more at hand to deal with legal issues proactively, before they arise – as opposed to working on a reactive basis. In terms of risk and compliance management, this can be a hugely useful and end-cost-saving perk for any business. 

And for lawyers?

Variety
Probably the perk I love the most. When friends and family ask what it’s like to work in-house, I often use the analogy of a “GP-style” way of working – whereas in private practice, lawyers are often registrars/ consultants in their specialist fields, in-house lawyers operate in a broader arena, dealing with all day-to-day legal and commercial ailments faced by their business. 

In my role working for a multi-portfolio business like The Royal Mint, for example, my to-do list varies daily – from drafting commercial contracts, to carrying out intellectual property due diligence, to advising on public procurement exercises, to general dispute resolution. It’s this range which I found was missing in private practice. 

There is a slight caveat to this diversity though – much like with GPs, people expect you to know any and every area of law! But, provided that you know your limits, know that there’s power in saying “I don’t know the answer”, and have a budget/ ability to seek specialist advice from other lawyers as and when needed, it certainly isn’t an obstacle to the job. 

More time to “lawyer”
The inherent nature of private practice means that so much of a fee earner’s time is taken up by non-substantive, non-lawyering tasks and pitfalls – from fee quotes, to billing target pressures, to invoicing, to WIP, to write-offs, to business development and so on. In the absence of these often administrative (and time-consuming) tasks, an in-house counsel’s day is freed up to do what we’re all trained to do – the law. 

When I look back and compare my time at both sides of the spectrum, I realised that I’m far more productive, and actually get more substantive work done, as an in-house counsel. 

Work-life balance
It’s no secret that the legal industry can be cut-throat and emotionally challenging. Most importantly, the mental health of a worrying number of young lawyers is in a dire state. 

Recent research from the likes of the Junior Lawyers Division, for example, has found that:

  • 1 in 4 lawyers experience “severe” stress at work
  • 90% of junior lawyers feel stressed and under pressure on the job – with 50% of those unable to cope
  • 1 in 15 junior lawyers has had suicidal thoughts
  • 48% of junior lawyers experienced mental ill-health in the preceding month, and
  • 93.5% of junior lawyers said they’ve experienced stress in their role.

What I’ve found (and I’m sure plenty of others in my shoes would agree) is that, without many of the drawbacks and pressures of private practice, an in-house lawyer gets to enjoy a more well-rounded work-life balance, and a generally healthier wellbeing overall. 

This isn’t to say in-house is an easy ride – similar challenges, frustrations and stresses still exist on this side, and you’ll still need to put in some extra hours now and then. But, these challenges become more bearable, and are far better poised. There isn’t, for example, as much pressure to burn the midnight oil, and to get those billable figures on the up. 

Being an employee of The Royal Mint certainly helps on that front too. In particular, I’m lucky to be part of an organisation which treats mental health and wellbeing with the priority it deserves. For example, we’ve rolled out Mental Health First Aider training to over 30 employees so far, launched an Employee Assistance Programme (with free, on-demand counselling available to all), and worked with Mind as our Charity-of-the-Year. 

The Royal Mint also operates a hybrid working model, meaning that its flexibility attracts talent from across the UK. From speaking to peers in the industry, I know that a wide range of other organisations are offering similar structures to entice in-house expertise. 

Colleague vs. service provider
Another bonus I enjoy is that I’m a teammate to the people I advise. Instead of being a third-party outsourcing, who’s called on to help with discreet issues, internal lawyers form an integral part of the wider group – and the praise, recognition, gratitude and results you get (and give) arise far more commonly. 

Development
Whilst it may not be the case for all in-house lawyers, particularly junior ones, I found that I had considerable responsibility and development movement from the get-go. Without the traditional hierarchical levels of private practice, a junior in-house counsel is often required to take the lead on juicy, complex pieces of work – work, perhaps, they wouldn’t get to experience at such an early stage of their career in a firm. 

As well as personal development, area-specific development is great too. Because of the variety I mention above, you’re often asked to look into and advise on niche areas of law which you’ve never covered before (and resultantly, what will be familiar to most of us, spending hours in a PLC-induced rabbit hole). I know “every day’s a school day” is such an overworked cliché, but it really is the case when you’re working in-house. 

Commercial advisor
Finally, one of the changes which surprised me the most during and after my time on secondment was how much more “commercially aware” I’d become – apologies, I’m sure that dreaded catchphrase will trigger nightmarish flashbacks of TC applications/ assessment centres for plenty of young lawyers!

Over time, much of my advice has picked up the style and substance of a business consultant, on top of the usual black-and-white legal guidance. Put simply, with the experience of being a key player in the corporate make-up, you’ll likely grow into a more business-focused and well-rounded commercial advisor on the whole.

But, in-house prospects are pretty rare, right? Not necessarily. Looking at the current market, it’s clear that more and more opportunities for this kind of working style are popping up – a simple job search of “legal counsel” on LinkedIn, for example, returns plenty of hits. Whilst these are predominantly London-based, I’m convinced that the in-house model will become far more popular (especially with the increase in hybrid/ flexible working), and far more widespread, overtime. And rightly so. 

Gethin Bennett
Assistant Legal Counsel 
The Royal Mint 

 

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