I’ve been recruiting for in-house legal positions for circa 20 years.  During that time, I’ve heard many views and opinions expressed about the pros and cons of life in-house, and indeed, the process of making the first move.  Though many of these are an accurate reflection of what it takes to succeed as an in-house lawyer, for many associates considering such a transition this alternative career path is still shrouded with mystery. So, CheekyLittleCareers has tasked me to write a couple of blogs to debunk the myths about switching from private practice to in-house.

Moving in-house doesn’t mean you’ve failed in private practice

The classic misconception that still continues to crop up, albeit far less than in years gone by, is that only failed private practice lawyers move in-house.  I don’t tend to hear it expressed in such blunt terms these days.  I do though sometimes hear senior private practice lawyers say that if they’ve made it to X position in Y law firm, surely that’s more than enough to make them attractive to any in-house employer.  The fact is the two jobs are quite different.  Neither is better than the other.  And needless to say, I know numerous extremely bright, capable and impressive in-house lawyers who could’ve become partners in private practice but chose to take a different path.  What’s more, in more recent times I’ve also seen an increasing trend of senior in-house lawyers making a successful transition back into private practice as partners, just to prove the point!

Work/life balance and getting closer to the business 

In the list of reasons why lawyers look to move in-house, achieving a better work/life balance vies closely with “getting closer to the business” for the number one spot.  Naturally, what I hear regularly from candidates is words to the effect of “obviously I wouldn’t say that to anyone in interview”.  But my advice to candidates is that they should remember that the Head of Legal or General Counsel interviewing them once sat in their shoes and had exactly the same thoughts and drivers as they do.  I’m not advocating throwing it out there as your key motivation as soon as you’ve sat down and shaken hands.  However, acknowledging at an appropriate point during the interview that being able to get a bit more control and certainty over your working life would be attractive, is unlikely to mark you out as a workshy dilettante!  Expressed in the right way, I think it can have the opposite effect of showing you to be a normal, grounded person with integrity and the sort of person they’d like to have join their team.

Working in-house can offer variety

Another classic that I hear all the time is, “I don’t want a dead end job where I’m just doing NDAs for days on end”.  Of course, no-one wants that.  The reality is that within most in-house environments, hierarchy doesn’t materially impact your day-to-day work.  This is especially the case in a smaller team. Most if not all in-house lawyers will have a mixed bag of work, both the complex/strategic stuff and the mundane administrative tasks.  This can apply to a 20-PQE General Counsel as much as to a 3-PQE Legal Counsel, albeit you’d obviously expect the General Counsel to be spending more time on work requiring his or her level of experience and judgment.  The point is that with any in-house role, you need to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth.  The key for most people is finding a position in a company they can identify with, working with people they like and respect, in a role that provides a sufficient variety of work to keep them challenged and interested.

I haven’t done a client secondment

There’s a view held by some that moving in-house requires prior in-house secondment experience.  This isn’t really a myth, but it’s by no means applied ubiquitously by in-house employers.  Some teams will undoubtedly favour candidates who have experienced first hand what it’s like to work in-house.  They’ll see it as de-risking the investment they might choose to make in someone.  But I’ve worked with plenty of clients who don’t view a lack of secondment experience as a barrier.  They’re perfectly prepared to make a judgment on whether they feel it will be the right environment for you and play to your strengths.

I’ll wait till I’ve gained more PQE

Last but by no means least – if you move in-house when you’re too junior, you’ll get stuck; better to move when you’re more senior and get a more senior job.  I don’t really buy into this.  Of course, more senior roles require more experienced candidates.  However, recruiting for more senior in-house positions is rarely just about how experienced you are.  Sometimes those more senior positions, which are also more scarce than ones at the more junior end, will be targeted at those who are already in-house.  Partly because they typically require the type of people management experience gained by having been someone’s line manager, which below partner level is almost impossible in private practice.  They often also require a depth of sector experience that is again difficult to gain in private practice where you’ll probably be working with a range of clients from a mix of industries.

The reality is that if you switch to in-house at a more junior level, you’re likely to need to move positions every few years during the first part of your career in order to keep progressing.  However, in doing so, you might well be gaining the various limbs of experience that will combine to make you a very attractive candidate for that highly sought after Head of Legal/General Counsel position when the time comes.

Watch out for my next blog in which I’ll be sharing my top tips for navigating the in-house lawyer jobs market.

Richard Hanks, Head of In-house Division, MRA Search