Private Practice to In-House: Comments from those that have done it

I started my legal career in the in-house team at a major bank as part of my graduate rotation, after initially working in their credit and risk teams. I found the legal work much more interesting and better suited to the way in which I think and work compared to the pure finance work. When my rotation came to an end and I couldn’t get an ongoing role in that legal team (they said it was due to a lack of resources to train juniors, rather than my performance, but they were nice people and could just have been protecting me from the cold hard truth of why I didn’t get a role), I ended up getting a job at a big law firm. Hello Clayton Utz, my old friend. Hope you’ve been well.

They’ve moved across the road now, but this building still haunts my dreams.

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I found the move to private practice from an in-house role to be… ‘different’ doesn’t quite capture the feeling I’m after. I’m sure there is a better way of saying the transition was ‘really pretty brutal and forced me to take a good long hard look at myself’, but I don’t have the vocabulary skills, unfortunately.

Suddenly everything was about billable hours, cost recovery and chasing bills, and being a revenue earner. This was very different from being seen as a cost centre for the rest of the bank which was the case when I was working in-house (that is, we got paid salaries but didn’t really charge the other parts of the bank for our work).

It was the 11th anniversary yesterday of me starting that in-house role, and it got me thinking about what the experience is like these days for lawyers who move from private practice to in-house roles. Are they happier? Do timesheets disappear? Are career prospects, pay, bonuses and perks better or at least more attainable?

Luckily I have some friends who have made this move and they were kind enough to share their thoughts on the subject. I will not identify people or firms for privacy reasons, but I can say that the 10 extracted comments below are reflective of the general view of those that responded to me.

Spoilers? They’re almost all happier, don’t do timesheets, get paid about the same, don’t get many (if any) perks, and are still very stressed about their career prospects. With thanks to all respondents, here is what these survivors / beautiful butterflies who have emerged from the chrysalis of law firms think about their in-house life:

1.    ‘I’m definitely happier and no longer have that feeling that I have to be available all the time. I also like being able to leave at 5pm sometimes without getting death stares or pulled aside and spoken to by my partner for not putting in enough face time.’

2.    ‘I like not doing timesheets, but it does make it hard at performance review time. At least with timesheets I could show all the billable hours I’d done, and knew whether I was meeting the minimum. In my current role, the review process is a heap more subjective and I think some people can manipulate it or take credit for the work that others do. They might not do it intentionally but it’s a bit like exaggerating your skills on a resume.’

3.    ‘Less money, more flexible hours. No perks, but clear management lines and less conflict between managers. Definitely happier.’

4.    ‘It’s good but I still don’t know what I want to do with my career. I keep getting asked to make a 5 year plan by my manager and don’t really know what to say other than I don’t want to get fired’.

5.     ‘Never going back to a law firm.’

6.     ‘If you want to have all of your hard work ignored or undervalued, and be seen as an unnecessary obstacle to the sales team doing their job in the way they want to do it, go in-house. Still prefer that treatment to what I was getting at a law firm though’.

7.    ‘When I moved in-house, my salary went from frozen at 3rd year lawyer level to almost double what I was earning. Plus shares in the [business] if we make targets. So pay is definitely better. Work is no better or worse, just different’.

8.    ‘It’s amazing how much easier it is to come to work in the morning without feeling like everyone around me is either competing against me for work, or thinking I’m not working hard enough. The work levels and pay are about the same, but mentally I just feel so much better.’

9.    ‘I’ve just quit, but that was because I am moving to London. But even with that, [my employer] has been great about the whole thing and even asked if I wanted to apply for a role in the London office. I can’t see a law firm doing the same thing’.

10.    ‘I’ve done 10 years at a law firm and 18 months at [my employer]. Feel like the last 10 years was a bit of a waste and I probably only did it because I thought working for [law firm] would make me sound like a success story.’

 

I know this isn’t a great sample (which is my fault, rather than the respondents) and everyone has different experiences. I’m sure many people love working for law firms and private practice, and hey, I’m still doing it. Despite this, I believe that the above responses are pretty close to what the majority of people who have made the change to in-house roles would think of their current working life.

Simple conclusion – you have to do what makes you happy. If you’re not happy then find out what is making you unhappy and try to find a way to get rid of that part of your life, or at the very least replace it with something that makes you less unhappy. Kitties make me happy. Here is a ginger one I saw at a cat cafe.

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