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The great debate: In-house vs Private Practice

Posted by: Laurence Simons 02/04/15

Ask any lawyer what’s better - in-house or private practice - and I’m sure you’ll spark a debate that you’ll quickly wish you hadn’t.  In our recent global salary survey when lawyers were asked how they see their career progressing 9% said ‘moving from private practice to in-house’ and 3% expressed an interest in moving the other way.

So, why do more lawyers want to move in-house rather than moving to private practice? The statistics above don’t surprise me to be honest. There has always been the feeling that working in-house brings a greater variety of work; more interaction with non-lawyers, being closer to the decision maker, being part of an industry that is of real interest to you…and the removal of the most tedious of  exercises – time sheets (although, this isn’t always guaranteed). The rise of the General Counsel role and all this entails could be another reason for the continued interest in in-house moves. 

You will sometimes hear lawyers say that the grass is greener on the in-house side. However, one note of caution is that within businesses the legal department is in fact a cost overhead as compared to their law firm counterparts who are considered revenue generators and can easily justify their financial worth to their employer.

My advice to those wanting to make the jump from private practice to in-house is to think long and hard before acting. This isn’t a temporary decision as the move back to private practice can have its difficulties. Most importantly, you will need to prove to a law firm that you have the reputation and the client base to justify them hiring you and this is not easy when you are coming from an in-house environment.

The rise of the alternative business structure (ABS) has given lawyers a different avenue to explore. The Big Four accountancy firms that hold an ABS are essentially creating in-house legal firms.

The opportunity to become a specialist in one area rather than being required to have a vast general knowledge of law (as is sometime required in-house) is one of the arguments you may hear from lawyers that currently work in private practice.

My opinion? You need to have a good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Form there you will know two things:  what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Knowing these two things (which is a difficult task in itself) will certainly help to provide the right career path for you. Neither one is better than the other, both have their merits and both are suited to different types of lawyers.

This is one of those debates that will continue...!