For lawyers who have worked in private practice for several years, it is not uncommon for them to consider making a career change to an in-house position. Although working in private practice can be a rewarding experience for many lawyers (to gain deep knowledge and practical experience in a specific area of law and let’s face it, earn an attractive salary), the long working hours and demanding work culture will often really take a toll. Lawyers who have a few years of experience in private practice may start thinking if there is a better way to strike a balance between work and personal life, and may consider moving in-house for a change.
Working in private practice
Law firms are generally a good place to start your legal career. Many large law firms provide excellent training and mentorship programs to guide a junior lawyer’s professional development. As a junior lawyer, you may be rotated through several different practice groups before you choose to focus on one specific area of law. Also, no matter the size of your firm, you will gain experience servicing clients. Managing both external and internal relationships are essential skills that you will acquire at a law firm. However, to meet clients’ needs, you will have to act fast and be responsive. It means that sometimes you will be required to sacrifice your personal time for work.
Working in private practice is undoubtedly very challenging and your schedule is often dictated by the needs of clients and the nature of work. The working hours, therefore, can be extremely long. Nevertheless, the remuneration is alluring for many people. International law firms tend to offer competitive packages with the lockstep or salary ranges for each class year to be transparent. If you work in a smaller firm where the base salary is not as competitive as those BigLaw firms,
you can still increase your earning potential by bringing in your own business and receiving a commission of the revenue.
Working in-house paints a different picture than working in private practice. Instead of serving many clients, in-house lawyers usually have only one client to serve, which is the company they work for (but they may have several stakeholders in the company). There will no longer be billing pressures, so some may say in-house lawyers tend to have a better work-life balance. However, it is not a paradigm that in-house counsels always enjoy stable working hours from 9am to 6pm. If you get contentious work, it can keep you as busy as private practice does, depending on the size of your team and the business needs.
Generally, an in-house counsel is assumed to be responsible for a wide range of matters for the company and required to advise on different areas of law. He or she is also expected to anticipate and manage risks, advise on potential legal issues and essentially ensure the stakeholders and the company stay out of trouble. Nevertheless, legal team from sizable companies usually have a clear division of roles. In other words, it is possible that you will only practice in one area of law as you do in private practice when you are working in-house. For example, some multinational operations may hire an employment lawyer in the team to solely focus on handling legal matters relating to employment and labour issues.
Should I move to in-house?
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, as an in-house counsel you generally are assumed to be handling a range of different legal and compliance matters for the company. These can include contracts drafting, negotiations with business partners for the contract terms, marketing materials review, and disputes handling, etc. With various legal matters a sizeable company will face, in-house lawyers are given opportunities to step up in management, which means that they not only oversee the legal function but also participate in making business decisions for the company. Therefore, moving to C-suite positions is becoming a possible route for the in-house lawyers who would like to have another experience in their career journey and further develop their busines and management skills.
The comparison chart below illustrates the differences between private practice and in-house in general perception. This is not an exhaustive comparison and should not be treated as a norm for both private practice and in-house.
If you are considering making a move to either private practice or in-house, it is always helpful if you can make a list of what you are looking for. Job satisfaction? Compensation? Or stability? Different wants may lead you to a different path. We have made a general comparison between private practice and in-house in the table above and addressed some of the realities of working in private practice vs in-house above.
If you are open to the opportunities and ready to take a next step in your career in law. Please don’t hesitate to talk with us. You may browse our current job offerings or submit your CV to us for further discussion.
Contributor: Austin Lee (Business Development & Client Account Manager, Hughes-Castell)