The prodigal lawyer

A counter trend to the traditional move from private practice to an in-house role has emerged.

From the confines of plush offices, at 10pm on an average Tuesday, junior lawyers across Australia, weary from endless hours of due diligence, start to reevaluate their private practice career. Some are disengaged from their work; others are exhausted by the demanding workload. Some see a move into an in-house role as the solution.

Their desire is requited. In-house legal teams have expanded considerably in recent years and the quality and variety of work have correspondingly increased. Companies are recruiting bright lawyers to do legal work which in previous years would have been briefed out.

This is a trend well established in the legal profession.

In recent times, however, a counter-trend has emerged.

Many in-house lawyers are seeking to return to private practice. Their motivations vary. Some regret when a juicy deal flows to an external firm because their team lacks the resources to retain the legal work in-house. Others miss the opportunity to specialise in a favourite area of law – something that’s not available in generalist in-house positions.

Other practitioners who built corporate law careers in industries now in decline look to law firms when faced with a paucity of senior in-house opportunities. Some junior practitioners who started their careers in-house aspire to join to a firm to broaden their industry exposure and sharpen their skills.

Many law firms are resistant to hiring corporate counsel, particularly if the lawyer has been out of private practice for some time. Partners sometimes perceive in-house work to be less complex and less challenging and are therefore concerned about the standard of the corporate lawyer’s black letter skills and its (often) less specialised nature. And of course a lack of client following means that the returner won’t be able to “wash their face” for some time – a real issue in this tight economic climate.

This transition is most readily achieved by lawyers who bring rare, desirable industry knowledge, skills and contacts. The current high demand for mergers and acquisitions, banking and finance and property lawyers means that our law firm clients are inclined to be more open-minded about fishing from the in-house candidate pool.

Of course the return to a firm means big adjustments for the lawyer.

Some face discrimination on seniority, with their PQE level (and therefore remuneration) discounted because they haven’t ‘done their time’ in a firm like their peers.

The law firm supervision model can come as a shock to a lawyer who has enjoyed a freer rein in a company. Returning to time sheets, billable units and budgets and being on the receiving end of instructions rather than the client end is a big change.

Flexible-minded partners willing to hire from a corporate legal team recognise the value of in-house experience: the professional agility, commerciality and breadth of the legal offering from these candidates, together with industry knowledge. Understanding the client perspective and managing the client relationship should come naturally to these hires.

Let’s see whether this trend grows.