Despite the title, you’ll be glad to know that this is not a case summary.
In-house and private practice have always been two very different paths in the legal world. Once you have trained or worked in one, the other seems like an alien concept. Both have their positives and negatives but what is it really like and has the pandemic changed perspectives? I trained in the private practice world and made the jump to in-house and public sector life.
Probably one of the most discussed (or complained) about elements of a lawyer’s life is chargeable hours. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it is the recording of time per matter per day, which can be done by a stopwatch or a manual insertion of a record. One of the most common metrics is 6 minutes per unit. Hence it will take you one/two units to read this. Practically, it provides an accurate record of what a lawyer does in a day - which on the face of it seems quite logical and sensible. However, it can become tedious if your whole day, whole month and whole year is determined by the hours you log.
There will be times where you have to do extra work on a matter and on paper it just seems like excessive time compared to the agreed fee or similar matters. Nonetheless, the quality of the work and client care are not necessarily reflected. Perhaps the main gripe is the disproportionate focus that chargeable hours can have, often becoming the main focus of a matter as opposed to the actual legal work. Most private practice firms are very strict on time recording as this is what is often presented to clients at the end of a matter. For in-house lawyers this is generally less strict, quality of work and active matters are more of the focus.
Training is very important, especially the technical legal training at the junior end. Most large private practice firms have a good structure of training which is excellent for development. Having specific departments in different areas of law tends to bring experts at the front of the training schedule and is great for everyone involved. Depending on the size of the in-house organisation, training is often not as structured. However, interestingly, in-house gives you the freedom to attend private practice hosted training sessions. During the pandemic, this has been ideal for anyone in-house. The ability to cherry pick training sessions from some of the best firms in each respective area of law has been a game-changer.
Culture is a very subjective element, but I think any organisation with a culture not focused on pure financials is often quite positive and has an ethos which promotes more development and opportunity. Any legal service provider which is purely focused on chargeable hours will inevitably neglect some of the other key components - client care, business development, brand, training and more. As much as it can be a good tool for measuring time and then value, it can often lead to a mindset which is focused on targets and billing and not quality of work and client care. Furthermore, I think it is easier to harness a collective culture in an in-house organisation as your colleagues are your clients, as opposed to private practice where your clients are external parties, where it can often be an ‘us and them’ dynamic.
Probably one of the biggest pulls to in-house life is the ability to work in different areas of law. Anyone from a large private practice background will know the feeling of passing on work to another department or even externally without having the option to delve into the issue themselves. In-house life gives a lawyer the freedom to research into other areas and can often be extremely beneficial in shaping a career with different specialisms and developing new skills. Having this freedom is quite liberating and really broadens the thought process as opposed to sticking to one niche area. The obvious drawback to this is that the more areas someone practices in, the less time they can devote to any one area.
Both career paths have great pulls and can learn a lot from each other. I think the pandemic has really given people time to think about what they want from their careers and to see what else is possible. I think the traditional legal career is now a more modern looking profession with a number of different routes and angles which can only benefit the sector as a whole.
Baljinder Singh Atwal is chair of Birmingham Solicitors’ Group