In-house law versus private practice – the old assumptions no longer apply

Charlie Harris weighs up the pros and cons for associates considering a move in-house

There’s a lingering perception that lawyers move in-house for lifestyle reasons, including the absence of those dreaded time sheets. 

It isn’t nearly as simple as that. 
Moving in-house can be a great career move for many, but it isn’t for everyone and those considering it should carefully weigh up the pros and cons. The stakes are that bit higher because it is rare for in-house lawyers to return to private practice. 
First, let’s be honest about the lifestyle factor as many in-house lawyers will baulk at the suggestion that they are enjoying an easy life. 
While working as an in-house lawyer is likely to be demanding, in most cases the hours will not be comparable to the gruelling schedules that accompany work at leading law firms: schedules that really do make it hard to maintain a social life outside work. And while flexible working has finally taken hold at top law firms as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, those long hours still have to be put in.  
In-house lawyers enjoy the added advantage that workflow tends to be more regular, making it easier to arrange time off and holidays, which, post-pandemic, has understandably become a priority for many people.
Nevertheless, the constant demand for in-house teams to do more for less is eating away at these lifestyle advantages. And anyway, job satisfaction isn’t all about lifestyle. 
Many in-house lawyers I speak to, point to the hands-on nature of their work, which brings them much closer to the business, and often requires them to oversee projects from start to finish. 

Salary bands are bunching so that more experienced associates and even salaried partners are starting to feel hard done by

In-house lawyers are generally expected to have a broader knowledge of the law and are often required to work autonomously. This brings its own pressures. It is less likely, for example, that decisions will be checked and there may be less support generally. And although in-house legal departments are investing more in technology, the legaltech won’t be a patch on what law firms offer.
Private practice advisers, on the other hand, need to acquire, and hone a specialist area of law. They will regularly be meeting and working with new clients, while managing a portfolio of work that requires constant juggling. There is also a more overt sales element to their job as client winning is an essential skill and crucial for those wishing to make partner.
While the law firm career ladder is becoming a little more flexible at the edges, it remains true that associates will be under pressure to keep improving so they can take on more senior roles and allow the next group of associates to advance.
And while starting salaries for associates are eye-wateringly high and getting higher, salary bands are bunching so that more experienced associates and even salaried partners are starting to feel hard done by, given the extra demands placed on them.
On the other hand, salaries for in-house lawyers for in-demand specialisms have been increasing, opening up opportunities for lawyers who prefer to work in traditionally less glamorous practice areas such as privacy.
All of which means that, while the two career paths remain very different, that distinction can cut both ways depending on an individual’s personality, skills and priorities.  
The many senior associates who do take up in-house roles are not doing so because they can’t hack private practice, but rather because they are better suited to career in house. A career that has its own requirements and challenges and that is equally fulfilling, just different. 

Charlie Harris is managing director of Contax Law, a division of Nicholas Scott Global Legal Recruitment, the exclusive provider of jobs for The Global Legal Post

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