Outside looking in

December 4, 2014

Why private practice is jealous of in-house – and why it shouldn’t be

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It’s tempting to think that all in-house lawyers live the good life, never having to deal with pesky clients and keeping regular hours. We look at some reasons why those in private practice should be green with envy of their in-house counterparts, following up with three reminders why it might not always be a bed of roses.

1) No clients

No clients! No billing! No marketing! No more awkward networking events to win business!

Working in-house, there would be no need to schmooze clients: instead, you’ll become the schmoozed, being invited to those very events by law firms hopeful of instructions. What a life, being able to enjoy a second rate glass of wine and a curled up sandwich with no pressure to perform.

Life would also be much simpler. There would be no more need to swot up on a million different businesses to at least try and appear vaguely informed about what one individual client does.

2) Life isn’t lived in 6-minute chunks

No billing means no need to divide your time into arbitrary chunks and the row of clocks on your desktop would disappear. There would be no more admonishments about submitting your timesheets and no more pressure to hit the magical billable hours target figure.

Imagine a world where you don’t need to persuade anyone that the time you spend on organising team socials should be taken into account at bonus time.

3) Contributing to company strategy

Ever feel that all your hard work is aimed at nothing more than ensuring your senior partner can afford that Ferrari? In private practice, the aim is simple: wring every last cent out of your clients to maximise profit for the partnership.

In contrast, in-house lawyers are often part of a team of advisors who help shape the direction of an organisation. Working for a company, the ultimate goal might be to maximise profit for shareholders, but along the way you could get involved in a whole range of things. Imagine the heady power of working for, say, a washing machine company and being part of the team that decides which shade of white looks best. It’s the cutting edge of commercial endeavour.

4) Work/life balance

In-house lawyers start at 9am, finish at 5pm and take a full hour for lunch, in which they can eat at cafes, visit museums or take a gentle stroll through the park. At least, this is what lawyers in private practice like to believe.

Even if the reality is slightly different, chances are that in-house lawyers have a better work-life balance. Picture a pie chart showing the number of social activities cancelled due to work for in-house and private practice lawyers. That tiny sliver of pie sure don’t belong to someone who works at Clifford Chance.

5) Varied work

In a large law firm, you may become stuck in a niche area, specialising in, say, Romanian government bonds. However, in-house lawyers generally get involved with a range of work, working on whatever the company needs. Anything ultra-specialised gets farmed out to external advisors.

If variety is the spice of your life, in-house might be the perfect tikka masala blend for you.

But, before you jump ship, consider these three drawbacks:

1) Moolah

If it’s all about the money, money, money, look elsewhere. Although salaries for in-house trainees and juniors may be similar, limited promotion prospects mean there is a ceiling to what you could earn in-house. If money is what drives you, get back to Slaughters and get gunning for partnership.

2) Boredom

The truth is, most lawyers enter the profession knowing exactly what they’re getting themselves in for. A sadistic part of us likes the pressure, the long hours and the constant juggling required to balance the demands of different clients. If you take that away, we’d be bored.

3) You’re on your own

There’s that feeling of panic when someone rings you up with an obscure legal question and you have to give your opinion. That weight of responsibility and the need to get it right can be daunting. In private practice, you can ask around (often with the aim of passing the responsibility on to someone else).

No such luck in-house: you may be the only lawyer in the company or, at best, part of a small team. You are the one who is expected to know the law, without a support team around you to draw on, so have to deal with whatever comes in. LM

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