NQ Solicitors: in-house or private practice, what career path will you take?

With the majority of NQ solicitors wrapping up their training contracts in August, demand for new roles is at its highest. We’re seeing an increase of enquiries regarding in-house legal roles from these newly minted lawyers. Speaking with Heads of Legal & General Counsels about whether they’d hire an NQ raised some interesting talking points.

If you’ve just qualified, the first thing you need to do is take a moment to appreciate what you’ve just accomplished! Well done! All those hours you’ve put in are finally bearing fruit. Those all-nighters at university and the office have led to your name appearing on the solicitor’s role. After completing your training seats, you’ve hopefully found an area of law that interests you and with any luck, you’ve been offered a position in that department. So now what?

Here’s a few misconceptions that I regularly hear:

Surely I’d get better experience in-house? The law firm environment is a great place to learn. Although there is the expectation that you should carry your weight in terms of fees and billable hours, there is generally an incredible learning and development culture. This is most apparent during the lifecycle as a trainee, but it’s only the beginning. Being surrounded by experienced solicitors, you’ll have first-hand access to a wealth of knowledge right in your own office. Experts across a range of fields are all housed together making a law firm office one of the best places to learn an develop as a solicitor. There’s help and advice just a door-knock away.

So what else can I gain whilst in practice? Although practical and academic learning opportunities are invaluable, there’s also another aspect of any lawyers life that is nurtured within a firm – a network. From day one, you’ll begin to develop a network of legal professionals across a variety of practice areas. These range from the supervising partners guiding you through your training contract, to the senior associates and even your fellow trainees. As you develop you’ll begin to interface with opposing lawyers, external counsel and barristers. These connections become invaluable as you advance within your career. These contacts may open several doors to new job opportunities, client referrals and of course, provide you with solid legal advice should you ever need it.

In-house lawyers earn the same as private practice lawyers and work less hours right? Wrong! The most important thing to realise is the primary output of a law firm is the provision of legal services. The entire business is built around this ‘product’. They are the face of their firm and primarily responsible for its success. On the other hand, in-house teams, whether for a FTSE 100 business or an SME act as a support function. They enable their company to conduct business and their role works in conjunction with multiple stakeholders.

Similar to a sales team, the chief measure of output for a private practice lawyer is billings (or sales). The private practice lawyer knows exactly how much money they’ve earned for the firm and as such is frequently able to command a much higher salary than their in-house colleagues. NQ salaries at Magic Circle firms can eclipse some regional Head of Legal salaries!

Fine, but the hours in-house are better, right? Wrong! Well not completely, some of the hardest working lawyers I’ve ever met work in-house. Whilst there are ‘quiet’ periods where the work day can resemble a more traditional 9-5, in-house lawyers can be expected to work similar ‘practice hours’ during crunch times, often with less support and resources available to them than their practice colleagues! So it’s certainly not the ‘cushy’ option. Your accountability to internal stakeholders is also far higher, so there’s an increased pressure element too!

What about secondments, would these count in my favour if I want to move in-house? If you’re fortunate enough to go on a secondment you’ll gain invaluable experience and insight into the functioning of an in-house legal department. It’s a great learning experience seeing how legal advice is rendered “on the client side” compared to an external provider like a law firm. Seeing why certain decisions are made will certainly bolster your understanding of how business is conducted and how risk is mitigated rather than totally eradicated. Whilst a secondment will be a valuable experience if you decide on moving in-house, it’s no guarantee it’ll be easier to secure a new role.

Why would anyone ever want to leave a law firm then? And that’s the million dollar question! Make no mistake, the majority of lawyers will spend most of their careers working within the law firm environment. Provided that you can maintain consistent billings you’ll progress up a well-worn and well-defined career ladder. Conversely, career development in-house isn’t well defined. The smaller the team and business, the more difficult progression can be. Flat structures create limited mobility meaning that some senior in-house lawyers have to move/ change companies in order to progress to more senior positions. When doing so they can lose a lot of intellectual capital and forgo their internal networks along the way. Most in-house lawyers agree that the best part about working in-house is the ability to affect business strategy and decision making. They’ll see the full lifecycle of a project through to completion, rather than seeing work in an isolated vacuum.

So what advice would you give an NQ considering moving in-house? There’s unfortunately no silver bullet or clear right/wrong answer. Right now you’ve got 2 years of experience. Not bad. How many seats did you undertake? If you’re like most UK Solicitors, you probably rotated through at least 4 departments with 6 months in each of these. Realistically you’ve had limited exposure across a wide array of the law. Looking at what we’ve observed, most in-house positions stipulate at least 1-2 years pqe – remembering that this means post admission experience. With a further 24 months under the belt, you’ll have developed more knowledge, ability and confidence to deal with some of the challenges associated with working in-house. With a touch more experience you’ll have a true grasp on the profession and be in a better position to decide whether in-house is right for you.

A legal career in-house or in private practice can be  challenging and a rewarding one if you’re committed, hungry and passionate. Each will test you in different ways, so only one question remains: which path will you take?

Grant is an ex-lawyer and specialist in-house legal recruiter. Grant has been expertly guiding in-house legal professionals for over half a decade, placing both junior positions as well as senior & executive levels. Call Grant to discuss the in-house market & any jobs that might be suitable.

Grant Jackson
grantjackson@chadwicknott.co.uk
T:  0121 200 5574
M: 0774 184 5065

 

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