Written by Marianna Tuccia – Principal Consultant, Legal Professional & Nicholas Brown – Legal Recruitment Resourcer l Sydney, NSW
Are you thinking of making the move in-house? The allure of no time sheets and the promise of a better work/life balance is enough for a lot of lawyers to make the move in-house. However, before making the move you really need to consider your skills and experience, your career goals and your personal and lifestyle commitments, as an in-house role is not for every-one. Below are some thoughts (and they are by no means exhaustive) in relation to the pros and cons of both.
Timesheets – Working in-house means that the company you work for is your one and only client and the client, in essence, pays for your salary. Thus, most in-house lawyers do not have to fill in timesheets. However this is not true for all in-house lawyers, the legal teams of major corporations, especially ASX-listed companies, do in fact require their lawyers to fill in time sheets and account for their time so that it can be allocated to different cost centres of the company. Legal teams are overheads for organisations and not generators of profit and their existence need to be constantly justified.
Work/Life Balance – Do you really get a better work/life balance by going in-house? Sometime you do. Sometimes you do not. Whether you get a better work/life balance really depends on the amount of legal work the company decides to complete in-house and how much of their legal work they want to outsource. More and more businesses are trying to save costs on legal expenses, and a simple way of doing this is to outsource less and have their in-house lawyers do most of the legal work. Some in-house lawyers that I know are actually working longer hours than they were in private practice due to the heavy workloads and the lack of resources that they do not have access to as they would have had in law firms e.g. administrative assistance, paralegal support, junior lawyers, on-line library services.
Better remuneration? – There is widespread belief that remuneration will be better in-house than in private practice. Again, sometimes it will be and sometimes it will not. Usually, as a rule of thumb there will be a jump in salary for the junior to mid-level lawyer. At the senior, there could also be a jump in salary but then salaries tend to plateau and if there is no opportunity for progression within the team (e.g. the General Counsel is not going anywhere anytime soon), the only solution may be to secure another in-house role or return to private practice. There is also widespread belief that all in-house lawyers get bonuses every year. This really depends on the company, whether certain KPIs have been met and the profit of the company. Increasingly, more law firms are also paying bonuses and have healthy incentive schemes.
Jack of all trades and master of none – Care needs to be taken that the in-house role is so general that you lose your specialisation as you are attending to every legal problem that faces the company. It may be exciting and interesting to learn new areas of the law at the very beginning but if you are passionate about a particular area of law and you are not practising in it as much as you would like, this could become frustrating. Additionally, the higher up the food chain you go the more likely you are going to take on more management and operations responsibilities and less legal work. This may suit some lawyers but others lawyers ‘love the law’ and this is what gets them out of bed in the morning
Job security – Some industries can be volatile and are greatly affected by negative economic conditions. As a legal team is usually the biggest overhead for a company and in order to reduce costs, in-house lawyers can be the first casualty. It is true that law firms are also impacted by an economic downturn but they are slower to respond. Moreover, they usually have luxury of moving under-utilised lawyers to other teams.
Politics – There is politics in every organisation, be it a company or a law firm. Companies are, traditionally, very hierarchical and there can actually be more politics than in a law firm. More and more law firms are adopting a flat structure and are realising that in order to survive, a cohesive, collaborative and inclusive approach needs to be adopted. Junior lawyers to IT support staff are being asked for their feedback and input in decisions that impact the firm.
Can you return to private practice? – I see many lawyers making the transition from private practice to in-house and vice versa. If your only experience has been as an in-house lawyer, securing a private practice role may be fraught with difficulty. Rightly or wrongly, some partners in law firms see in-house legal work as too generalist and in-house lawyers have not developed strong legal technical skills. If your career plan was always to try in-house for a few years to get a deep insight into a certain industry and be more involved in the commercial processes of a company, do not leave your run too long before returning to private practice. It will be harder to return to a senior role in private practice and be promoted to partner without a client following.
Depending on your careers goals, your interests and your lifestyle, you need to decide where you see yourself. Like every major life decision, careful research needs to be undertaken before making the plunge.