The pros and cons of working in-house

“Am I unhappy with the culture within private practice? Does a move in-house offer a better working environment?”

By John Egerton, Manager, Corporate, Mahlab (NSW)

Dissatisfied private practice candidates often approach us expressing a desire to move in-house to get away from a difficult working environment and the negative culture which sometimes can be associated with working in a law firm. These lawyers cite long working hours, the constant pressure of billable hours, meeting budgets, timesheet recording and a fiercely competitive working environment as the major drivers behind their move away from private practice. Many of these disgruntled lawyers feel under appreciated in a law firm and view a move in-house as providing a better culture and a more rewarding working environment. Is this necessarily the case?

Whilst much will depend on the particular role and organisation you work for, an in-house career definitely provides a different working environment to that of a law firm. An in-house role however should not be viewed as simply a soft or easy option compared to private practice. In fact, working in-house offers its own unique set of different challenges compared to private practice. Whilst the hours generally are not as unpredictable or as onerous as a law firm so you will have some more control over your work and social life, the days are busy and constant as you sit embedded with your client. As in-house legal teams are generally smaller than the specialist departments of a law firm, the work in-house will be more varied, ad hoc and challenging and you will require a commercially focused approach as you will be dealing directly with the business.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of a career in-house is that you will feel more rewarded in that you will focus on a single client and see the results of your legal advice first hand. Many private practice lawyers often feel at arm’s length to their clients and just reacting to a particular legal problem or issue, whereas in-house, you will be involved from an early stage and see the real impact of your legal work on the business. An in-house role will provide the lawyer with a genuine feeling of collaboration that you are working closely with your internal clients on a common goal and purpose and contributing as an integral part of the business. This commercially focused and business facing aspect of working in-house undoubtedly contributes to a satisfying working environment for lawyers.

In-house lawyers also enjoy the opportunity of dealing with a wide range of people from different backgrounds rather than just being around lawyers in a private practice setting. They like being in the real world and interacting with a varied workforce.

Whilst the positives outweigh the negatives, it should be acknowledged that in house legal teams tend to be flatter and less hierarchical structures than law firms so career advancement can often be a challenge. Resources, systems and support also tend to be more limited for lawyers in-house compared to private practice.

Overall however the culture and working environment in-house are favourable and in-house lawyers generally view their careers as satisfying and offering considerable autonomy, responsibility and a more balanced lifestyle. A key factor underpinning a satisfaction of working in-house is that you will be measured by the value of your contribution to the business and not simply by the number of hours billed.