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Moving from In-house to Private Practice

 

By Robina Clough

 

A simple Google search will reveal that there is a decent dose of information out there giving advice on the benefits of and how to make the move from private practice lawyer to an in-house legal position. But most pieces only touch on the (often less trodden) path back into private practice; what options are available and how easy or difficult it may be.

 

 

What’s in it for you?

 

  • By its very nature, being a fee-earner in private practice automatically makes you a revenue generator rather than a cost centre - in fact lawyers within commerce and industry are nearly always one of the highest cost per head employees in the business;
  • One of the greatest advantages of being in practice from a professional development point of view is the on-going structured education and training and the vast wealth of information instantly available to you through know-how support functions;
  • As most law firms follow a lockstep career path from assistant and  associate right through to equity partnership, being in private practice can bring with it higher earning potential. Whilst as a mid-level lawyer you may be able to command a similar salary level when you move in-house, you may find over the course of two or three years your compensation has fallen behind your peers in law firms as you will benefit from only a relatively small annual “across the board” pay increase as opposed to the almost universal step up the lockstep enjoyed by private practice lawyers;
  • Additionally very few in-house counsel make it to a senior level management position or are offered the opportunity of a seat on the board. With the average equity partner in the top 50 law firms taking home £524,500 {1} working your way through the private practice ranks can prove to be very lucrative (click here to see our in-house lawyer salary survey or our guide to partner compensation in London);
  • The recession aside, a law firm career can often be seen as more stable. Depending on the nature of the business, in-house roles often have a habit of becoming defunct after several years in the position due to cost-cutting exercises, relocation or perhaps take-over by another entity;
  • Working in practice gives more opportunity to be involved in cutting edge work and the chance to get to grips with the minute detail of applicable legislation;
  • As an in-house lawyer your employer is the client; in private practice you potentially have the opportunity for a greater variety of work by advising a broad range of clients.

 

 

The downside of private practice:

 

  • One of the most popular reasons cited for having moved in-house in the first place is the desire for a more balanced lifestyle {2} and whilst in-house lawyers often feel they work more intensively, most agree that their workflow is more regular and have shorter working days {3}. Lawyers in City law firms can easily find they are putting in more than 1800 chargeable hours a year, which doesn’t even take into account time spent on training, business development, marketing and pro-bono matters. In-house it is rare to suddenly be asked to cancel holidays, miss an anniversary, or spend weekends in the office; in private practice it is commonplace;
  • Actually having the pressures of billing targets and time recording are themselves a real turn off for many;
  • As an in-house lawyer, with your employer as the client, you tend to have a captive audience and there is generally no need to tout for business. To go anywhere in private practice you must show you have a knack for business development and be able to start assembling your own book of contacts and eventually a book of actual business. Networking is not every lawyer’s cup of tea and can often consume valuable evening time;
  • Although one of the benefits of working in private practice listed above is the relative stability compared to in-house, law firms are not immune to market influences and during the recession as many as 10% of private practice lawyers were made redundant.  

 

 

If you decide that the positives outweigh the negatives and feel a move (back) to private practice is for you, it’s important to weigh up how easy that move may be. Factors will vary from firm to firm, location to location and be dependent on your legal expertise, but broadly your “selling points” and your “negatives” are likely to be the following:

 

 

Your “sell points”

 

  • The fact that you have worked in-house gives scope for your current employer, be it a bank, financial services organisation or corporate entity, to instruct you if you move to private practice. A law firm would be hopeful of exploiting your relationships not just with other lawyers in the legal department but with other key decision makers deeper within the organisation;
  • The fact that you have worked at a certain organisation may be of particular interest to a prospective law firm employer particularly if it will help with gaining, or consolidating, a panel appointment;
  • Having worked “on the other side of the fence” it is likely that you have good links with the wider in-house community which may have the potential to turn into lucrative business development opportunities in your new law firm;
  • Depending on your specialism or industry sector, it may be that you have been involved right from the inception of some innovative matters. For example a derivatives lawyer in an investment bank may be involved in developing cutting edge products, or an energy lawyer working for a renewable energy company will have an excellent insight into the future of the industry;
  • As an in-house counsel you are “the client” and will have the commercial awareness and understanding of what the client expects, such as a sense of urgency, depth of advice and the drivers for cost efficiency,

 

 

Your “negatives”

 

  • If you have only ever worked in-house (including your training), or have been away from private practice for some years, law firms will, perhaps correctly, assume that you won’t have, or at the very least will be very rusty on, the skill set needed to be a fee-earner, such as time recording and business development;
  • Often in-house lawyers are perceived to be out of touch with cutting-edge legal developments;
  • As an in-house lawyer, unless you were hired for a very specific role, the chances are you will have become much more of a generalist lawyer. You may for example once have been a commercial IT lawyer, but now find your remit covers IT, IP, franchising, employment and general commercial law. Whilst this is invaluable and rounded experience, it doesn’t necessarily fit with the “compartmentalised” nature of law firms and can be perceived as too diluted;
  • Despite utterings from colleagues that you can be assured of their business if you move to a law firm, very often this doesn’t materialise and law firms can be jumpy about pinning all their hopes and their investment in you based on this one particular client;
  • Even if you are able to exploit your in-house employer as a client, you won’t be able to demonstrate a track record for developing new business and even contacts you have in other legal departments will already have an established panel of law firm advisors that may be hard to crack into. The more senior you are, the more important an issue this is, particularly if you are ultimately intending to aim for partnership.

 

 

From time to time, law firms will specifically seek to recruit lawyers who have gained in-house experience. Often a six month or so secondment will suffice, but occasionally there is an appetite to bring in someone who has spent longer building up their commercial awareness. Some in-house backgrounds tend to be of more interest than others; for example, with increased regulatory scrutiny across the financial markets, time spent at the Financial Services Authority (“FSA”) may be seen as an invaluable insight into how the regulator is sharpening its teeth for a firm which doesn’t have an established financial services practice. Interestingly, prior to 2008 , lawyers coming from the FSA were generally considered below par as it was perceived by many as a “dumping ground” for those who couldn’t obtain a position in private practice. In the last couple of years, some of the top legal brains in the City have opted to join this particular regulator, although there is still some scepticism about the quality of experience of those lawyers who have been in the system for some time.

 

 

The ease at which you will be able to move from an in-house position to private practice really is dependent on a great number of factors, as outlined above. But perhaps the most influential are your level of seniority and your area of specialism; a mid-level lawyer with say three to five years’ post qualification experience (“PQE”) in IT/IP, derivatives, capital markets, competition or financial services may find (assuming they had a couple of years of private practice experience before moving in-house) that their experience and skill set is interchangeable between the two. As you get to a more senior level, however, it becomes increasingly difficult as you are more of an expensive “gamble” for a law firm, particularly if you have been out of private practice for five years’ or more.

 

 

For more detailed advice about returning to private practice, speak to one of the Edwards Gibson consultants.

 

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

{1} Legal Week, 15 July 2010.

 

{2} Cited by 77% of C&I lawyers - Corporate counsel – a profile (The Law Society, June 2008). 

 

{3} The median number of hours per week worked by C&I lawyers was found to be 48 - Corporate counsel – a profile (The Law Society, June 2008).

 

 

© Edwards Gibson 2011

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Articles by Robina Clough

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