Looking for an in-house legal job can be a leap into the unknown for many private practice lawyers.  The purpose of my latest blog is to offer some practical advice on a few areas to think about when looking to make your first move.

Think ahead – this really starts when you’re a trainee! The department/specialism you opt for on qualification can have a material impact on your ability to move in-house at a later stage in your career.  Some skillsets are considered mainstream in-house and are likely to put you in a strong position, for example commercial (and increasingly, technology).  Conversely (and perhaps unsurprisingly), more specialist areas (e.g. arbitration or planning) come up very infrequently.  If you think that you might want to move in-house in the future, it is worth speaking to an in-house recruiter when you’re considering your qualification options, so that you have a sense of the relative merits of what you are selecting.

Another point to consider regarding the timing of your move is that securing an in-house position can potentially take you a long time – months and sometimes even more than a year – especially for more senior lawyers with roles coming up on a more ad hoc basis.  With that in mind, if you’re starting to think that this is a move you might want to make over the next year or two, it’s a good idea to put yourself on the radar of a few reputable in-house recruiters.  It’s unlikely they’ll bombard you with ideas, but a steady trickle of job opportunities coming through to you can enable you both to refine your thoughts on what’s going to interest you, and also means you’re less likely to miss that ideal job when it does eventually come along…

Lastly, it’s a good idea to have a base CV ready to go so that you can subsequently tailor as required.  Whilst it’s easy to assume you can just put this together at the last minute, it often takes longer than you think – and is difficult to focus on if you’re getting beasted on a deal.

Keep an open mind – some candidates will have quite a clear idea of what they’re looking for whether in terms of industry sector, size of company/team, work composition etc. For most lawyers, looking for an in-house job is an iterative process.  They refine their views about what they’re looking for as they proceed through different in-house opportunities. With that in mind, it’s important to be as open-minded as possible at the outset.  As I’ve already alluded to above, in-house positions come up less frequently than private practice options.  Dismissing too many out of hand can result in you having too few to consider.  You might miss out on opportunities that, whilst on paper didn’t look immediately attractive, in practice could have proved to be a great fit.  In any in-house job, the “fit” is crucial for both parties.  You might interview for your ideal job and find you don’t click at all with the Head of Legal.  Conversely, you might interview for a job you’re lukewarm about, and then find you really gel with the line manager, or find that the scope of the job is much more attractive than was portrayed by the job description.  The “fit” can often end up trumping every other factor.  You can’t assess that from a job description.

Look at the whole package – as most appreciate, a move in-house can often require a drop in base salary. The corollary of this, which again many candidates acknowledge but often don’t take account of, is that it’s important to consider the whole financial package.  For example, a car allowance is a common in-house benefit.  Many candidates don’t understand what it is, say they don’t drive or don’t need a car, and so dismiss it.  Actually, it has very little to do with a car and is best thought of as akin to non-pensionable salary.  It is cash in your pocket.  For example, if your base salary is £75,000 and you receive a car allowance of £7,000 pa, this is best viewed as fixed “pay” of £82,000 pa, of which £75,000 is pensionable.  Pension is another benefit which whilst a bit boring (!), can add significantly to the salary in some instances, much more than it commonly does in a law firm.

Speak to a mix of recruiters – perhaps an odd piece of advice from a recruiter, but I tell candidates to speak to other in-house recruiters as well as us. We often work on positions exclusively, or alongside just one other recruiter.  However good an in-house recruiter is, they won’t be able to give you blanket coverage of the in-house market.  This is different to looking for a job in private practice, where arguably you can work exclusively with one experienced, well-connected recruiter. Related to this, when researching agencies it’s worth remembering that most have a separate in-house desk so it’s important you speak to the consultants on that side of the divide and not their private practice colleagues.

Finally – a note about the current market.  For various reasons, one of the effects of lockdown has been to increase the level of candidate interest in a move in-house.  Accordingly, competition for in-house roles is increasing.  It is therefore worth being ready to act (as mentioned above) so that you can move quickly if the right position appears.  And they are appearing!! Notwithstanding the obvious difficulties and uncertainties we’re all facing, there is a steady stream of new in-house opportunities coming to the market, albeit not all of them are being handled by recruitment firms…more’s the pity!

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