Competition for in-house legal positions has never been more fierce. Monidipa Fouzder mines advice for those on the outside looking in.

The reasons for wanting to move in-house are many and compelling. These range from the satisfaction of working in true partnership with ‘clients’ – seeing projects through from inception to operation – to greater control over one’s working environment.

But to make a successful transition, experienced in-house lawyers advise, a dramatic change in one’s professional mindset is crucial. Private practice lawyers seeking to move should start to focus on the experiences that will support that shift.

Beyond the law

‘If you want to focus on law and nothing but the law, it may be that an in-house career where you’re asked to interact much more closely with your colleagues and clients is not for you,’ says Kate Staples, general counsel at the Civil Aviation Authority.

In the public sector, ‘you have to be interested, and enjoy working, in a political and public environment’, Geoff Wild, director of governance and law at Kent County Council, advises.

‘You must have the ability to adapt the law to the democratic organisation, see it in its practical, real-life context, whether it’s to do with closing a school, reorganising libraries, dealing with social care for adults or building a bypass. All of it has social impacts. In this regard, the work you do is its own reward, but it also carries an additional level of responsibility,’ he adds.

The appeal – and challenge – of being an in-house lawyer is being able to apply one’s skills on the ground in day-to-day business situations and, KPMG director Christopher Arnull warns, ‘not leave it to the employer-client to digest the legal analysis and apply it in a practical way to the business’ – the lawyer will need to advise on how to do that as well.

‘You need to become a useful and trusted business adviser who is a lawyer, preferably in that order,’ Arnull advises.

‘In private practice you are consulted for your legal skills, but in-house the expectations are wider. You are expected to show a good understanding of your employer’s business and the market in which it operates, its competitors and key players, so that you can always contribute in a way that is commercially focused.’

He adds: ‘It is important to recognise that as an in-house lawyer, you will not be a popular team member if you keep saying that you cannot help because the issue is outside your field.’

The in-house lawyer will also need to become accustomed to a more ‘general’ way of  working. ‘We literally are “Jacks and Jills of all trades”,’ says Oxfam’s general counsel Joss Saunders.

‘The most important competency is to be able to triage. We have to diagnose things very quickly when they come in, and say “what’s the issue here, who needs to handle it, when, and how?”. Quite often with commercial contracts, the bread and butter for a lot of in-house teams, we say, “This doesn’t actually need any legal input”.’

One direction

Private practice lawyers are used to dealing with clients with their own individual priorities looking for a particular outcome. In-house solicitors will be working to an agenda.

‘In our case, we’re trying to overcome poverty and suffering, to root out injustice,’ says Saunders. ‘We have a concept at the moment: there is a woman called Karo who is a refugee with a child, in a very difficult situation in a camp, and our chief executive always says, “How do we make Karo proud?” So when I go into work in the morning and have to give legal advice, I ask myself, “How is this legal advice going to help Karo?”.’

For public sector lawyers, that vision will constantly change because of the political nature of their work.

‘You have to deal with the change of administration every four years, which can bring a very different tone and agenda to the work you do,’ says Wild. ‘You can never be certain of the direction the organisation is going, because you are at the whim of politics and local democracy. You have to be very nimble on your feet and supremely adaptable.’

Commercial value: from the beginning

International firm Reed Smith created a unique Legal Practice Course with MBA-style business learning to enhance the commercial savvy of its trainee lawyers. Nigel Spencer, director of learning and development, and Lucy Crittenden, graduate recruitment manager, explain.

In September 2012 we launched a graduate programme which was created jointly with BPP’s law and business schools. It incorporates the mandatory LPC but also builds MBA-style business learning around this technical legal content, leading to a full business masters qualification. The firm launched this initiative for various reasons:

  • The course delivered on the consistent theme in client feedback over the last few years: that they value commercial, business-savvy lawyers;
  • A tailored course with business content would make the junior lawyers more knowledgeable about the industry sectors where the firm focuses before they began their training contract;
  • We always try to link learning to our clients. A summer placement at the client not only gives graduates real-life experience of managing client relationships in a live project which they were leading, but also provides the client a value-added consultancy offering;
  • The course could differentiate the firm to graduates by offering a unique, and more commercial, learning curriculum in their mandatory, post-university training;
  • By keeping the business learning elements in the same academic year as the LPC, the course did not elongate a graduate’s path before starting their training contract.

We were keen to include three different learning elements to diversify beyond purely classroom-based development:

  • Formal, MBA-style business learning in the first term;
  • Sharing the knowledge ‘upwards’ in the firm through a creative ‘reverse mentoring’ scheme;
  • A ‘stretch’ assignment running a business project at a client.

Source: Trainee Recruitment and Management (Ark Group Publications)

The public sector

SRA figures show the public sector is a popular field: 37% of in-house solicitors are employed therein – 18% in local government and 8% in the Crown Prosecution Service.

Wild, who qualified at the Greater London Council, has worked at a number of local authorities. ‘There isn’t one size that fits all – it has been a “patchwork quilt” experience, as you get all sorts of different legal in-house teams operating in all types of different local authority,’ he says.

‘I went from the far-left in terms of political leaning with the Greater London Council, to a Conservative-run council in Hampshire, then back to Wandsworth, which was far right-wing in its politics. But wherever I went, the legal work was just as cutting-edge, dynamic and exciting.’

A more diverse and collegiate workforce was refreshing for Staples, who worked in the Department for Transport’s aviation legal team. ‘Personal success is not achieved at the expense of others,’ she says. ‘You don’t have the sharp elbows trying to make [it] to partnership. It sounds a bit corny but there was a considerable sense of belief in doing what was right.’

A better work/life balance also makes the public sector an attractive move.

‘It certainly allowed me to have a fulfilling and rewarding career, and balance that with the demands of having and caring for small children,’ says Avril O’Meara, who worked at the Office of Fair Trading for more than a decade. ‘I’ve seen lawyers move in-house or to the public sector after having children because they could not cope with the demands put on them by private sector employers to work long hours.’

Making the move

Although non-private practice institutions took on a marginally greater share of trainees in 2013 than in 2011-12, private practice continues to be the main route into the profession.

Providing a breadth of experience is difficult for smaller in-house legal departments. This is less of a problem in the public sector with its numerous departments of all types and sizes. Kent County Council recently launched a programme of recruiting up to four trainees every year.

Although Leo Dezoysa, head of legal and business affairs at RLJ Entertainment, qualified in private practice, he knew early on his career that he wanted to move in-house, after completing a six-month secondment at one of the firm’s largest clients during his training contract.

‘I found private practice very hierarchical and not always a meritocracy,’ the former sole counsel for Miss World says.

‘In-house you are constantly judged on your ability to deliver results and do the job. There are no limits on how much responsibility you can take on or how quickly you can be promoted. Best of all, when working in-house in a senior role, you’re involved in key commercial decisions that actually shape the business and wider industry, which doesn’t really happen if you are at an external firm.’

Ways in

Secondments are a useful way for lawyers to test the waters of what it is like to work in-house. As Dezoysa points out: ‘The experience will be invaluable whether you end up moving in-house or stay in private practice.’

Pro bono initiatives provide another route. ‘The whole pro bono movement provides an interface between private practice and in-house in the charity context,’ Saunders says. ‘In fact, it’s fair to say we’re quite dependent on pro bono – and that’s not just Oxfam, that’s true of a lot of charities.’

Advocates for International Development, for instance, works with a network of ‘legal partners’ willing to provide their expertise free of charge to development organisations, governments, bar associations and social enterprises, to help eradicate global poverty (see

Short-term contracts offer another alternative route. ‘We have a network of in-house charity lawyers and there’s probably over 200 of us,’ says Saunders. ‘We have an email list, and circulate vacancies and enquiries. People might approach me for a volunteering opportunity and we don’t have anything suitable at the time, but we might refer them or post it up on the email list and say “Does anyone need somebody?”.’

The future

The growth of the in-house sector shows no signs of slowing down as, Dezoysa notes, ‘companies capitalise on the dual benefit of significantly reducing external legal spend while at the same time developing a valuable internal resource’. But as private practice adapts to changing markets (see box, right), so too does the in-house sector.

‘New technologies are changing the way we practise, our relationships with our clients, how inside and outside lawyers work together, and even the business and legal issues we face,’ observes Riverview Law’s Steven Zdolyny, who previously worked at the Environment Agency and was head of legal at the North West Development Agency.

Local authority budget cuts, meanwhile, have forced in-house teams there to review their business strategy.

‘You’re seeing local authority legal teams clubbing together, pooling their resources, or collaborating to create joint panels of legal advisers. Some are selling their services and trading to survive,’ Wild notes. ‘Here at Kent, we are going one step further by setting up a joint venture with a private sector partner to create an ABS to sell our services in the wider market.’

Initiatives like Kent’s ABS are changing the definition and role of both in-house and private practice – and underlining the growing importance of the in-house sector.

  • The Law Society’s In-house Division provides support and advice on key issues facing all in-house lawyers.