Not all lawyers choose to work in private practice. A growing number are being employed as advisors by all sorts of organisations: manufacturers, banks, oil companies, telecoms companies, football clubs, newspapers, central or local government, to name but a few. The Army and RAF also recruit lawyers as commissioned officers.
Are in house-lawyers barristers or solicitors?
Both. Around 20 per cent of barristers and 25 per cent of solicitors are now employed in industry or government. This number is set to increase, as companies realise the financial benefits of cutting outsourcing costs, as well as the peace of mind of having technical expertise close at hand.
What do they do?
They advise the organisation which employs them. The specific type of work will vary according to both the nature of the business and the size of the legal team.
Smaller organisations may employ just one or two lawyers to do everything, while some large global companies will have teams of a few hundred, spread over several jurisdictions.
As well as company secretarial work, commercial contracts, employment law, and looking after the intellectual property rights of the business, the work might also entail sector-specific issues. For example, an in-house lawyer for a broadcaster will need to be well-versed in defamation and privacy, and a not-for-profit lawyer will need to understand the mechanisms of the Charity Commission.
What skills are needed?
Their function may be to advise on the law, but first and foremost in-house lawyers are part of the business just like any other member of staff. Understandably, many colleagues will instinctively view “legal” as a cost centre or, at best, as an inconvenient necessity. The good in-house lawyer will overcome this by finding pragmatic and sometimes creative solutions, rather than simply putting up barriers.
He or she will often have to prioritise between cost, thoroughness, and speed, and decide which is most important. Unlike private practice, it is the work itself which counts, not the time spent doing it.
Solicitors in private practice are nowadays pigeonholed into a particular discipline. Although there may be some degree of specialisation in larger legal departments, in-house lawyers are essentially general practitioners, and will need the confidence to handle a very wide range of work.
Finally, people skills are vital. As an in-house lawyer, you will be advising (mostly very senior) colleagues, not just clients. You will often be called on to give unwelcome advice and doing so firmly but sympathetically is a challenge.
Should you train in-house or switch later?
There are relatively few training opportunities in the employed sector. However, the number is gradually increasing. The most prolific trainers are local authorities, with around 150 offering training contracts each year. A full list of providers can be obtained from the Law Society or the Commerce & Industry Group.
There is something to be said for waiting until qualification, or even a year or so afterwards, before transferring. A training contract in private practice will provide a good grounding in various disciplines and remember that it’s much easier to move from private practice to industry than vice versa.
In the meantime, many firms will offer secondments to the legal departments of their corporate clients. This is seen as mutually beneficial: the company will get a boost to its human resources, and the trainee will experience life at the coalface.
How well does it pay?
It depends on the sector. Pay for NQs in local government will roughly match that of regional firms (£25-30,000) whereas lawyers working in the construction sector, for example, might expect £40-45,000 as a starting salary. At the senior end, heads of legal in charities will typically earn £70-100,000, while in financial services they might be on basic salaries in excess of £150,000 plus large bonuses and added perks such as share options.
However, all this is a far cry from the sorts of earnings enjoyed by equity partners in City or US firms, so those who are motivated only by money may want to think twice about such a career move.
What about the hours?
The picture here is rosier. Generally, the hours are much more civilised than in private practice, especially at the junior end of the scale. Many will find themselves working 9am to 5pm, but again this varies between sectors. There is also likely to be a greater willingness to embrace flexible working time, as well as a more enlightened attitude to part-time workers than in many law firms.
What shall I do next?
Have a look at the list of organisations offering training contracts. Speak to those who have made the switch from private practice. Investigate which firms offer secondments to which companies. Apply for internships in legal departments.
Richard Sims is the Senior Legal Advisor to St John Ambulance.