Jumping ship

There is, and always has been, a steady flow of junior lawyers moving from private practice to in-house positions. Why? Everyone has their own reasons. I moved because I found myself wanting to change my career path from banking lawyer to new media lawyer before I got pigeonholed somewhere where I couldn't see myself still being happy five years down the track. This is more an issue for recently qualified lawyers than the majority of ship-jumpers, who usually move in-house at around 2-3 years qualified. So why do junior lawyers continue to move in-house?

There are those who see their legal training as a means to an end other than partnership. These lawyers often plan to move in-house as soon as possible after qualification, but most in-house legal positions do not arise until lawyers have 2-3 years post-qualification experience (PQE). So why do you have to wait 2-3 years? Basically, because companies want the law firms to give you your basic legal training before they tempt you away. In-house, there is generally less formal legal training so you are required to already know the basics and be able to put that to effective use in a commercial environment from day one.

If you are going to jump ship before 2-3 years PQE, you can't usually rely on your experience alone to get you through the interview. If you are not a linguist or did not run your own business at university then the best thing to fall back on is enthusiasm. If you are going to work in-house, enthusiasm for the business that you are moving to is as important as any love of the law.

You spend more time in-house coming up with common sense practical solutions to problems than working out the technical legal solution to an isolated question, although you sometimes do that too. In-house lawyers need to be able to build relationships of trust and confidence with a wide range of people at all levels – in my case often very creative and technically-minded people. This means understanding their business and not dealing with legal issues in isolation from the commercial issues.

Is it more money? I wish. If you decide to make the move in-house you can definitely expect a drop in salary, and sometimes quite a substantial drop – especially since the City pay hikes for junior lawyers. But has increasing junior lawyer salaries stemmed the flow to in-house? Not as far as I'm aware. For those that move in-house, money is not their prime motivation.

In-house positions do offer something which City law firms, no matter what they say, cannot seem to offer – they offer you your life back. So what is the catch? A drop in pay, but if you never have time to enjoy the salary what's the point in earning it?

Disenchantment with the long hours and lack of credit are probably the main reasons for moves in-house. Everybody knows (except partners, it seems) that junior lawyers work in an environment of long stressful days with regular weekend working, albeit with excellent salaries to stop them complaining too much. All law firms are naturally concerned to retain their junior lawyers, having quite often brought them up through their training contracts and ploughed substantial resources into them. But firms often seem more worried about lawyers moving to other law firms (the ultimate betrayal) rather than to in-house positions.

In-house, everybody seems focused towards a single set of goals. In private practice each client believes that their work is the most important and that it should take priority over the lawyer's other clients. And because of the fees being paid to external counsel, it believes that it is not unreasonable to expect junior lawyers to work the godforsaken hours they do.

As an in-house lawyer, your clients are still those same business people who are the clients of the law firms, but now they are also your work colleagues who seem to see you on a much more level playing field. They still have the same high expectations of your abilities as a lawyer, but the focus is much more on teamwork, with you being an equal member of the team working on the deal or dealing with the problem.

But all in all, seeing the bigger commercial picture can make your input much more rewarding and the job a lot more fun. n

Warren Smith is legal & business affairs executive at Pearson Television Enterprises