27 October 2011 | By Laura Manning
Completing your training contract in-house is a path worth thinking about if you want to really immerse yourself in a business.
The bulk of aspiring lawyers may still be taking the traditional training contract route, but there is growing interest about in-house trainee programmes.
Indeed, working in-house is now being perceived by many lawyers as an increasingly attractive option, with an alluring work-life balance and closer contact with decisionmaking in the business.
But will going in-house prematurely damage your career prospects? And is the less-trodden route from in-house to private practice a feasible option?
“I think the reverse route is possible,” says newly qualified associate Sonica Dahri, who is the first trainee solicitor to qualify at live events company NEC Group. “The skills you learn in-house are invaluable and fully transferable.”
Dahri juggled her training contract at NEC with a part-time Legal Practice Course (LPC) at the College of Law (CoL) for three years. She also completed a four-month secondment at SNR Denton to ensure her training equated to that in a commercial law firm before gaining her practising certificate.
“I hope to go into private practice at some point, and when I do I’m aware I’ll have to sell myself even more than normal trainees for a role,” she concedes.
But she does not believe that a trainee in private practice could replicate the skills she has gained by being immersed in a business.
“A trainee in a law firm will get to know their client’s business, but may not understand how that business works as a whole,”
Dahri says. “I’ve been able to develop my commerciality - understand how the business operates, the key drivers to the business and the level and types of risk it’s willing to take.”
This is a view shared by BT legal graduate programme sponsor Miles Jobling, who believes BT’s training programme is designed to leave career prospects open by training people in line with Solicitor Regulation Authority (SRA) standards.
“We definitely would produce someone capable of going into private practice,” explains Jobling. “But as a FTSE100 company we only offer a commercial and corporate training contract. Therefore, if you want to be a family lawyer eventually, I obviously wouldn’t advise training in-house.”
Despite a growing number of FTSE100 companies offering training contracts, opportunities remain scarce. What’s more, many students continue to be unaware that this alternative way of training even exists.
“It’s quite easy to look one-dimensionally at opportunities to train, and focus efforts on law firms,” asserts budding lawyer Ali Alan, who took part in a legal internship with Rolls-Royce. “But in-house programmes are not publicised enough. I studied law for four years and only heard about training contracts in private practice. This just makes students bombard law firms with applications.
“There are opportunities but you have to put in the research. You need to be prepared to do more enquiries and speculative applications - it will take a lot more time and effort.”
But companies appear to be keen to formalise their programmes, with BT, for example, planning to expand its presence on the graduate recruitment circuit by visiting campuses and promoting its training scheme.
“We’re working to promote BT and our legal graduate recruitment programme, but also to raise awareness of in-house training as an option,” says Jobling.
BT revived its trainee programme this year after axing the scheme in 2010 due to poor market conditions. Three law graduates started the three-year training contract in September.
In line with SRA rules, trainees at BT will undertake at least three seats, but BT requires would-be lawyers to complete compulsory commercial and litigation seats in the first two years, with the option of corporate, employment or competition for the third.
Like the NEC training contract, BT’s programme allows law graduates to embark on a part-time LPC with the CoL while doing their in-house training. And both companies boost their appeal by offering full sponsorship for the course.
NEC did not have a formal training scheme for budding lawyers prior to Dahri joining the company. Instead, Dahri began in a paralegal position, intending the role to provide financial support while she searched for a training contract.
“I believe that training contracts had not been considered by my company until I was here as a paralegal and pushed it on to their radar,” explains Dahri. “It’s a lot of expense for a company and quite time-consuming for the supervisor, but I think they would consider it again if the right candidate came along.”
Dahri works with a small team of three, with one other solicitor and group general counsel Keith Marriott. The team also has a paralegal and four members of support staff.
ITV has offered training contracts for around six years, with its trainees completing two six-month seats with the broadcast giant, and two six-month seats on placement with its panel law firms by way of swap arrangements. The firms include DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, Olswang and Slaughter and May.
The TV network offers training contracts to reward legal executives who show promise on.
“ITV legal runs a trainee scheme that has been designed to promote organic growth within ITV,” explains director of central legal affairs Paul Lewis. “We offer a good mixture of formal training and on-the-job training.
“Both [private practice and in-house] have their benefits. To train in private practice is likely to lead to a foundation of technical excellence by formal training which might not be as common in-house. An in-house lawyer is likely to have a greater breadth of work that is commercially focused.”
Lewis says the legal issues faced by in-house trainees are mainly the same as in private practice, but they relate to the company you work for, not a third-party client.
“In-house typically may not have as much emphasis on technical legal training, such as drafting, legal updates and so on,” adds Lewis, but he insists that ITV’s training programme develops aspiring lawyers’ business skills, technical legal skills, knowledge of ITV as a business and broader commercial awareness.
This is a view shared by Clarke Willmott trainee solicitor Luke Murphy, who undertook work placements at Vodafone and the Yell Group prior to securing his training contract.
“I find working in private practice and in-house very different,” asserts Murphy.
“In-house can be really informal and a lot more commercial - private practice is more hardcore law. Although in private practice commercial awareness is important, at trainee level there is more emphasis on law, while in-house you need to be commercially aware in everything you do. You need to understand how your legal work will interplay with the company. You’re a lawyer, but you’re not seen as just a lawyer.”
Having experience in both arenas, Murphy is well-placed to compare private practice with in-house. At Vodafone he spent a week in each department including employment, business development, litigation and commercial. He was involved in high-profile matters and took part in meetings with the Trading Standards Institute to discuss the industry as a whole.”I got vast exposure despite the limited time in work experience,” he adds.
A key comparison Murphy makes is the level of pressure in each environment. He explains that in a law firm one of the biggest challenges is the time constraint because, as a trainee, he is required to log time in six-minute units.
“In-house there was less structure and less formality, but it has a different pressure,” he says. “The company has its business objectives and strategies, and wants legal teams to just sit within those. You therefore have to strike a balance between giving them the answer they want and working out if it’s possible.”
The culture of Vodafone is also a key comparative feature. Murphy describes it as more informal and flexible, but concedes that this depends on the company.
“Work was passed between teams freely with no obstruction, and greater contact was common with non-lawyers such as HR and finance personnel,” he says. “The level of responsibility in private practice is limited because of the number of clients a trainee may have. It was great to get to know one client.”
Pros and cons
Alan, who discovered the two-month Rolls-Royce internship via a university link, worked in the data team. He explains that he had the chance to learn the ins and outs of the supply chain process, something he dubs the “A to Z of the product and service line”.
“I learnt about the bigger picture rather than wholly legal issues,” he says. “It was great to be surrounded by legal teams and be immersed in business transactions.”
However, he concedes that in-house he felt less like a lawyer because he was immersed in the business.
“I want to train at a well-known firm first,” he admits. “A normal training contract will give me greater legal exposure and therefore I feel it is best for me to go down the law firm route first and then go in-house after gaining the necessary experience.”
But Dahri feels the exposure she has gained is ahead of what a private practice trainee would get. Her main point is the level of responsibility she has in-house, which she attributes to working in a smaller team.
“The pluses are the complexity and variety of work in-house,” says Dahri. “Also, the responsibility: getting my own caseload; my own work; making my own decisions. I got to work and interact with people with broad experience on a day-to-day basis.”
She also mentions the issue of pay, explaining that as a trainee at NEC she was earning more than a lot of private practice trainees. “For me, it was a massive plus knowing I wasn’t losing out,” she adds.
What of the future?
Of course, a budding lawyer could choose to complete their whole legal career in-house, avoiding the private practice route entirely.
The vast exposure and inside knowledge gained by working at the core of a business will equip you with the skills and legal acumen to have a successful career in law.
But it is worth noting that it is possible to go from in-house to private practice, especially with a number of companies offering one seat of the training contract in a panel firm.
Dahri certainly believes she does not lack any skills. “I definitely enjoy being an in-house lawyer,” she asserts. “I prefer being part of a business and being able to give advice and shape the way the business is.”