[Beyond the Pinstripe is a website and blog which examines alternative career options for private practice lawyers. Caution: may contain typos.]
In the first of our series of interviews with lawyers practising and
non-practising, we speak with an in-house lawyer to find out their view
of the world, legal, careers and beyond.
What made you choose a career in law?
For similar reasons to most people I suspect. I was mindful that it
is a well-paid industry, which is not a very inspiring reason to choose
an industry but it’s difficult to ignore practicalities entirely when
setting out on a career. Primarily though,
my skill set was reasonably well suited to it – I am better with words
than with numbers, I enjoy drafting written communications and analysing
and presenting arguments.
What did you really want to do, if you could have done anything?
In truth, I never saw a long-term career in the law. I saw it as a
launch pad for other things. I remember people saying that you can’t go
wrong with the law because it exposes you to so many other industries
and that, in time, it will be easy to make the step out. There is
certainly some truth to that but, in some respects, I think a finance
background will often make for an easier transition into a business
“I really wanted to be part of an exciting industry in a
deal-making role. I wanted to be the person that does the deal much more
than the lawyer who records the deal.”
As it turns out, my non-legal involvement and input has increased but
I’m still a lawyer principally. I heard someone say recently that in
being an in-house lawyer, they considered themselves a business person
who considers legal issues rather than the other way around. That sounds
about right to me too.
How did your career path lead you to working in-house?
Due to a connection, I was offered a position in-house when I had
only been in private practice for a couple of years. At the time, I was
still quite young and I was the company’s first lawyer, so there were
some anxious moments early on. But in many respects, moving in-house
came as a great relief. I was much more certain about my business acumen
than my technical legal abilities. In-house life is more about finding
commercial solutions rather than being right about the law all of the
time. That’s not to say that the business doesn’t look to you to be
legally accurate in your review of a position – it certainly does. But
it’s guiding the business on whether to stick or twist which is the most
exciting, rewarding and difficult aspect of the job.
What is your current role?
Given I work in a small legal team, it’s a healthy mixture of
contractual issues, litigation, regulatory review and business
administration, which may include matters which are entirely unrelated
to the law. By way of example, I’m often asked to review key internal
and external communications, regardless of whether there is a legal
angle. I’ll also get involved in deals at a very early stage to
sense-check some aspects of the proposal.
I suspect roles can be more specialised in bigger in-house legal
teams but I find the mixture of work to be a saving grace. I don’t want
to be working exclusively on one contract or one piece of litigation for
weeks or months on end.
What sort of things do you do on an average day?
Well, an average day is probably the equivalent of 8 billable hours.
So it’s a solid day but you are much better able to organise your own
day and your own workload than in private practice.
I make sure I’m out and about seeing the business. Wherever possible,
I make sure I go and see people rather than call them or email them.
Ultimately, I do that because it makes my job easier – you get better
information when you see someone in person – but it will help on many
other fronts as well.
What about a non-average day?!
I could be travelling for the day, in a client meeting, in court,
dealing with an urgent issue that doesn’t allow time for anything
What skills from your private practice days do you still use
today and what have you had to learn as a result of being in-house
You still need to keep clients happy. It’s just that your clients are
now management and employees of the business. If they don’t want to use
you and don’t see the value in involving you, then the whole thing
You need to remain mindful of commercial realities. In private
practice, there’s no point filling time-sheets with work that will just
be written off. In-house, you need to be spending time on the stuff that
matters and spending the company’s money on external legal advice that
is effective and addresses key risks.
I’ve learnt that approachability is crucial to the success of an
in-house lawyer. I’ve also learnt to make a decision and move on quickly
– you have to make a lot of them and it is not constructive to dwell on
something when you have already applied your best judgment based on the
In your experience, and obviously this must vary per
employer, does working in-house offer flexible working and a good work /
life balance, particularly for those employees with kids?
Essentially, yes. Late nights are a rarity and businesses are more
open to home working and other flexible arrangements. There is less of a
culture of needing to be seen at your desk and more of a culture of
being judged by your output and effectiveness. So, that all lends itself
to a better work/life balance.
If someone was considering leaving private practice and
moving in-house, are there any practical steps you could recommend to
If they’re absolutely clear on which industry they want to work in,
then consider working in that industry as a non-lawyer for a period of
time. It will help with knowledge, contacts, industry lingo and
ultimately, when you do land the position, will make you a far more
If that is not an option, then most industries have training
certificates/basic credentials that can be undertaken relatively cheaply
and quickly. Your industry knowledge will improve as a result but, more
to the point, it will evidence a desire to be involved in the industry,
which potential employers will appreciate.
Clients of your current law firm are rich ground for potential in-house moves but obviously that needs to be handled delicately.
Is in-house a good alternative for lawyers who think that perhaps a legal career (in any form) may not be for them?
I certainly think it is. It is too simplistic to say that being
in-house is the best of both worlds, because not everyone finds that.
But the less your role is exclusively about the law, the more you might
find yourself enjoying the law.
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