In-house vs the Inns of Court

Susan Ward says a vast array of in-house work is available to young barristers who thrive on the cut and thrust of business. Susan Ward chairs the Bar Association for Commerce, Finance and Industry (Bacfi) with over 1,200 members. Student membership is available.

Practice as an in-house barrister puts you right at the heart of the action, whether it be in a corporate environment, in government or other equally challenging surroundings.

Today, opportunities for in-house lawyers (both barristers and solicitors) are too numerous to completely cover. At best, here is a taste of what is on offer.

The principal avenues are commerce, finance and industry, national and local government, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and education. However, there are also considerable opportunities for barristers in other areas of practice – for example international agencies and organisations, the EU, charities, legal recruitment and journalism- 00 to name but a few.

In the private sector, all business types employ in-house barristers. The larger multinational groups (such as banks, oil companies, the media and manufacturers) often have substantial legal departments. Medium-sized concerns usually have a legal adviser with two or three assistants and smaller undertakings (including trade associations) employ a single in-house legal counsel.

Legal advisers often report to the highest company levels – sometimes the board, often the chief executive. Providing legal services in such an environment is exciting, challenging and fulfiling. As counsel to a large multinational you know that your input can play a major part in transactions worth millions of pounds.

Some in-house counsel are generalists, dealing with all aspects of the company's business including contracts, employment law, competition law, health and safety and many other areas. Others are specialists, concentrating on particular areas of the law such as intellectual property or tax.

The Government Legal Service (GLS) is a major employer of in-house barristers. At least 16 central government departments and agencies have in-house legal departments. The variety of work is huge – ranging from the NHS services and human fertilisation at the Department of Health, to marine protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.

There are more opportunities for criminal law practice at other government departments including the Serious Fraud Office, Customs and Excise and the Department of Trade and Industry. Local government also provides opportunities in areas such as social services, education, consumer protection and the environment.

It would be very wrong to think employed practice means giving up advocacy. There are many opportunities for using these skills. While in-house barristers are presently restricted to lower courts and tribunals, I am confident that we will soon see full audience rights for all employed barristers and solicitors.

The CPS is a major employer of lawyers with an interest and expertise in criminal law and advocacy. It is an exciting time to be thinking about this career route.

In the area of education, there are interesting careers in universities and law schools, as well as other professional institutes and international academies, such as the highly regarded Trier Academy in Germany. The great advantage of this type of career is that it gives an opportunity to develop expertise in a specialist area which interests you, and also the flexibility to engage in other activities – such as independent practice or consultancy work.

So what are the advantages of a career in employed practice over one at the independent Bar? For me it is the daily thrill of being at the sharp end of business, and having a proactive, rather than reactive legal practice.

But for many it is also the wide variety of different types of work encountered on a daily basis, and the comfort of a regular and good remuneration package, including additional benefits such as a company car and pension. For those with child or elder care responsibilities, employed practice often offers flexible working practices such as job sharing, home working or part-time work.

Finally, if you are thinking about employed practice, be aware of what a employer wants. Certainly, they will look for an interest in and knowledge of their business – whether corporate or otherwise. In the private sector, they will be looking for some basic understanding of business and an ability to provide legal services in a business context.

As one businessman said: “I don't want a lawyer to tell me what I cannot do – I hire him to tell me how to do what I want to do.” This does not mean that, as an employed barrister, you must compromise your professional integrity. But it does mean you have to think about solutions and not problems. Also, bear in mind that employers often prefer candidates who have completed all their training. So, try really hard to get that elusive pupillage.

Convinced? You should be. If you enjoy practical solutions as well as legal answers, can react quickly and confidently to unforeseen situations, and can cope with heavy demands, then in-house work is just right for you.