Why lawyers move from private practice to in-house

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While there are increasing numbers of lawyers who train and qualify in-house, it remains the case that the vast majority of lawyers will commence their career with a law firm and subsequently decide to move in-house further down the line.

Whether you’re contemplating it now or planning your next step, we know that making the move in-house rarely comes as an easy decision. Stepping away from the private practice firm where you have most likely spent the first chapter of your career is often a daunting prospect.

To make your decision that little bit easier, we want to share with you the reasons why lawyers decide to work in-house and the rationale behind them.

Reasons lawyers move in-house

Work/life balance

Let’s address the elephant in the room from the outset! Historically, this is the number one reason that lawyers give for wanting to move away from a law firm and into an in-house position. The demands of working in a law firm are such that associates (and indeed, partners) quite quickly become accustomed to the fact that their jobs involve working long, unpredictable and antisocial hours.

In our experience, what most lawyers mean when they talk about an improved work/life balance isn’t necessarily working fewer hours; they aren’t aiming for the proverbial 9 to 5. What they are looking for is more control over their working day and week, and more certainty as to what that day or week will typically look like. We frequently work on positions where the expectation around hours might still be demanding (e.g. a typical working day that starts at 8.30am and ends at 6.30/7pm). A 10- to 11-hour working day is still a long day. However, if lawyers can be reasonably confident that 9 times out of 10, their hours won’t differ materially from this, that is really what they are after. When they feel that they can start to plan to do things outside work on a weekday evening with a strong degree of confidence that they will be able to fulfil those plans, they become much more accepting of the demands placed on them during working hours. Inevitably, there might be the occasional evening that requires you to work later, if a transaction is reaching completion, for example. However, it is both a much rarer occurrence than in private practice and typically something you’ll have advance notice of.

Working patterns

One of the other dynamics typically observed in-house with respect to the working day is that in-house lawyers will generally describe their work patterns as being consistently busy throughout the day. This can contrast sharply with the peaks and troughs in activity levels often experienced by private practice lawyers.

The frustration that stems from a partner walking into an associate’s room at 5.55pm, with a new deal that results in that associate working an all-nighter, is compounded by the fact they’ve been searching around for work to do all afternoon. That situation wouldn’t occur in-house. Even the biggest legal departments tend to be leanly staffed relative to their workloads so that you’re busy throughout the day. Moreover, you have a greater ability to anticipate and plan that workload in advance, and therefore to manage expectations accordingly. From this comes the element of control and an ability to structure your day, with late or left-field requests being far less commonplace than might be the case in private practice.

Proximity to a business

Alongside an improved work/life balance, this is probably the other most often quoted reason for why someone may want to move in-house – to “get closer to the business”.

What does this actually mean?

We believe it stems from what can often be the transitory nature of private practice. Lawyers working in a law firm will often work quite intensely with a small number of clients on a particular deal, matter or case. They will be in frequent, often daily contact with that client for a matter of weeks and sometimes months. However, once that particular matter has concluded, they will move onto working with other clients in a similar vein. They may not work again with that first client for years, if at all. Transactional lawyers sometimes feel that deals reach them once the commercial terms have been agreed and the structure decided upon, and they are simply asked to document what is essentially a done deal. Similarly, litigators can often be presented with a dispute in which the set of circumstances is one they’ve seen before and is one in respect of which they could have advised on ways of avoiding the dispute arising had they been consulted earlier. At the other end of the timeline, M&A lawyers completing an acquisition and then moving onto the next deal, don’t get to see how the acquired company is integrated into the owner’s business and the commercial result of having done that deal. While for some private practice lawyers, the variety and getting exposure to different clients and sectors is appealing, for many others there is a desire to have a fuller, more in-depth exposure to one particular business, to get to know it really well, to fully understand its business case and to live through its journey as the company evolves.

The other aspect to this is the desire of some lawyers to move beyond advising purely on legal matters and to have greater involvement in commercial decision-making. This has the potential to be contentious. It is clearly the case that many private practice lawyers are valued by their clients, precisely because the clients feel they’re able to provide them with advice that, while based on the law, is inherently commercial and tailored to their business and concerns. However, we think it remains the case that a number of private practice lawyers feel restricted by the law firm model and the need to caveat their advice and defer the decision-making to their clients. For that reason, many feel they would like to be on the other side of the table, receiving that advice and making commercial decisions on the back of it.

The various factors touched on above come together to describe what we feel most candidates mean when they say they “want to get closer to the business”. Indeed, this is what is achievable for many in-house lawyers. The career of an in-house lawyer offers the opportunity for lawyers to feel a part of, and actively contribute to, the life and operations of a company. It can provide lawyers with a rich and varied diet of work, the potential to influence matters as diverse as transactions and litigation, not just at a specific moment in time but from cradle to grave, and the scope to work alongside and in partnership with a range of non-legal professionals in a way that isn’t possible within the confines of a law firm. Fundamentally, it can afford the opportunity to have an impact on the strategic and commercial direction of a business.

If this resonates with you and you wish to consider a move away from private practice, our In-house team would be delighted to discuss it in confidence with you.

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