In-house lawyers: work inside a client organisation

A legal career doesn't have to mean employment at a law firm
Where to work

Many commercial lawyers don't work at a law firm. Instead, they work as in-house lawyers at the kinds of organisation that are typically the clients of commercial law firms, such as investment banks, asset management firms or large corporates.

If you're wondering what this career path is like and how you could embark on it, here we give you the key information you need, with the help of an in-house lawyer at a leading investment bank.

What in-house lawyers do

In-house lawyers often do much of an organisation's legal work themselves so an in-house lawyer's work is likely to be much broader than that of a lawyer at a law firm.

At a law firm, you're likely to focus on one legal area, while in-house your work might range from supplier contracts to branding issues to employment disputes.

But at big organisations with large in-house legal teams, there's often also the opportunity to specialise as an in-house lawyer - our interviewee explains that the in-house team at her investment bank is divided into a number of different sections.

"We have separate groups of investment banking lawyers, equities lawyers and fixed income lawyers. There's also an emerging markets floating lawyer who gets involved whenever anyone needs advice on an emerging markets deal."

Because of the breadth of their role and their closeness to the business, in-house lawyers are likely to be involved in many projects at once and to face a constant stream of varied legal questions from their colleagues.

The role also brings the challenge of balancing commercial and legal priorities: "You have to be confident enough to stand up to your colleagues when something won't work from a legal perspective," says the in-house lawyer we spoke to, "- that's your job. But, if at all possible, you have to find another way to do it."

Why clients need in-house lawyers and law firms

External lawyers provide organisations with vital perspectives that come from working with a number of different businesses in a particular area. "We rely on them," says our interviewee, "to incorporate or address any legal or commercial changes that have happened in the market."

Using in-house lawyers plus external ones is also a great way for an organisation to efficiently manage the peaks and troughs in its needs for legal assistance.

It's usually in-house lawyers who instruct external lawyers - they're the obvious people to do so because they have both commercial knowledge of the business and the legal background to understand exactly what advice is needed and what needs to be done.

"In-house lawyers," says our interviewee, "are the gateway between the business and the external lawyers and filter all legal enquiries and requests."

How being an in-house lawyer compares to working at a law firm

In-house lawyers are still fully-qualified practitioners, which means they're entitled to receive the training they need to maintain their accreditation and continue to progress. Says our in-house lawyer: "We have training all the time - weekly sessions on topics specific to what the business is dealing with at the moment."

In-house lawyers often draw on the expertise of external law firms for training - who are often willing to give their clients memos and face-to-face training for free in the hope of winning more business from their organisations.

Law firms may also offer in-house lawyers invitations to drinks and dinners, and sports, cultural and other events as a way to get to know them better and, with luck, win more business from their organisations.

Other perks of the job sometimes, but not always, include a higher salary that someone with an equivalent level of experience would get at a law firm, and more predictable working hours.

How to become an in-house lawyer

Most in-house lawyers start off at a law firm and then move into an in-house role, often with a client they have experience of working with, after anything from two to eight years of being a qualified lawyer.

A secondment to a client (an arrangement where a lawyer is "on loan" to a client for a number of months) is often a bridge into a permanent in-house position, either at that client or a similar one.

It's possible to complete your training contract in-house - and some would argue that the commercial awareness and business insights you gain by doing so is a great way to start your career, particularly if you're very interested in a particular industry and already know you want to pursue a career in-house.

And training in-house doesn't necessarily mean missing out on experiencing working at a law firm. In-house training contracts will often include time doing so to allow you to cover areas of legal work your employer can't offer you.

There are far fewer training contracts in-house than at law firms and they tend to be less well-advertised and arranged in a more ad-hoc way than those at law firms.

So if it's a path that interests you, be prepared to do some digging to work out what your options are, and perhaps some work experience or paralegaling to prove your worth and commitment before being allowed to apply formally.

Where an in-house role could take you

Career paths in-house are probably less clear-cut than those at law firms, because the business world tends in general to be a little less hierarchical than the legal one. But this fact can work to your advantage, says our in-house lawyer: "If you prove yourself and work hard, you gain the trust of the business, and once they rely on you, you can move up quickly."

There are also sometimes opportunities to move into non-legal roles, should you prove that you have the skills, flexibility and commitment to do so.

Some in-house lawyers, particularly those who've started their careers at law firms, end up moving back into senior roles at a firm. In the higher echelons of law firms, commercial awareness and business connections are often the most significant factors determining career progression, and these are the areas in which experienced in-house lawyers excel.