Moving in-house has often been seen as the “holy grail” for many lawyers but is moving across to the other side really all it is made out to be? The competition for in-house legal positions has never been fiercer and the decision to move in-house is one of the most significant ones of your legal career. Many lawyers believe that in-house opportunities offer more manageable working hours, whereby you are no longer documenting deals and accounting for every six minutes of your time. However, you no longer have the “kudos” of being a revenue generator – you are now a cost centre and will need to justify your value-add to the business. Not all in-house jobs are created equal and the question comes down to what you are looking to achieve by a move in-house both professionally and personally.
This article highlights some of the major factors that should be carefully weighed if you are considering moving in-house.
One of the notable differences with an in-house role is that many positions pay less on base salary than private practice, particularly at Hong Kong listed and multinational companies. Bonuses can help to mitigate this by balancing out total compensation but this requires a less risk-averse mind-set on compensation. As you progress in your in-house career, salary increases, promotion prospects and career path become less of a known quantity. This is in sharp contrast with the pre-determined lockstep system of private practice which allows foresight in terms of what to expect on salary and seniority from year to year. In-house teams at multinationals tend to be less hierarchical and have a flat reporting structure to either the General Counsel or Head of Legal in the region, therefore promotional prospects can be limited and often you are forced to make a move to another organisation to achieve a promotion or salary increase. If you are looking for a more defined career path, an investment bank may be a better fit as the banks have larger in-house legal teams with more structure.
Being an overhead instead of a fee earner inevitably reduces your job security. Even if you are a star lawyer with a strong internal client base, the success and profitability of the business you work in is outside of your control. In private practice, you are working with multiple clients and can spread the risk across different client sectors to an extent. As an in-house lawyer, you have only one internal client and so are less diversified. If profits are down, the company merges or is acquired, your job may significantly change or even cease to exist. It is therefore important to be versatile as your role/function today may change tomorrow. Examples of this are the redundancies made across the legal departments of several global investment banks in early 2016, and company mergers which have led to in-house legal departments being consolidated.
The Isolation Factor
Once you move in-house there is limited guidance/mentoring and it is up to you to pick things up and learn on the job. It is therefore important to have a strong foundation and legal training/experience before making the move. In-house legal teams tend to be smaller and you will have less opportunity to train as a lawyer and interact with other legal professionals.
Expect to be adaptable and work outside your comfort zone whilst multi-tasking and juggling a number of issues simultaneously. Being a fast learner, having the ability to grasp multiple legal principles and apply sound commercial judgment within a short timeframe are key skill-sets. In-house legal teams are lean and in order to succeed you will have to roll up your sleeves and get the job done, no matter how trivial, mundane or high level and complex the issue. Within private practice you are accustomed to paralegals, trainees and secretaries assisting you, whereas in an in-house environment you will often be your own support staff, or at best will have some limited support for the entire legal team. It is important to prepare yourself for a significant culture shift. As a fee-earner in private practice you are viewed as the specialist legal advisor; you provide financial institutions and companies with legal analysis and are one step removed from the business line. As in-house counsel, the business will look to you to make a commercial decision based on the legal advice you give with a view to resolving the issue in question in a pragmatic way. The pressure is on!
Visibility and Communication
As part of an in-house legal team your client is now more immediate and can walk across to your desk at any time. You no longer have the luxury of screening calls through your secretary or the comfort of scheduling a meeting for which you can prepare. However, at the same time you can be an expert within your industry, feel more integrated with the business and satisfied that you are working in a true partnership with your colleagues by seeing projects through from inception to implementation.
Given that you are in a partnership with the business you need to be self-confident and an effective communicator. Having the confidence to push back to the business and knowing when to question and say no is essential. You will need to be viewed as a solutions-provider as opposed to an obstacle to progress and it is important that you provide the business with alternatives as to how the problems can be resolved to get the job done. Whereas in private practice, your role is to identify risks and offer advice, as in-house legal counsel there is a higher expectation that you understand the risk appetite of the business and work within that framework to provide an acceptable commercial solution.
Returning to Private Practice
Once you have made the move in-house it can be difficult to return to private practice, although not impossible. If you have a significant amount of in-house experience and have been entrepreneurial by cultivating relationships during your career, some firms will see that as a potential business opportunity and this will help you make the move back. In Hong Kong, a number of lawyers have made the transition back from the in-house sector to private practice as partners after spending time in-house with financial institutions and Hong Kong regulators.
Most lawyers who make the move in-house tend to remain long-term. However, it is not for everybody. It is important to be aware of and anticipate the change in culture you are likely to experience, in order to facilitate a smooth transition. Lawyers have many compelling reasons for making a move in-house which range from more manageable hours to the satisfaction of being closer to the decision-making process and seeing a project through from beginning to end. If you can demonstrate you have a good understanding of the industry/sector you operate in, the business you are supporting and an understanding of the commercial risks together with being a solutions-provider, then you will be a trusted advisor to the business with a long and satisfying career as an in-house legal counsel. It is important to think about what you value most from your career and what your long-term objectives are before making the transition and choosing which role to take.