Working in-house is an increasingly attractive option as the remuneration packages close the gap with private practice, so what are the key questions for graduates and newly qualified solicitors to consider before making the move? Grania Longdon-down investigates.
A Law Society survey of the pay and conditions of corporate counsel produced a snapshot of the working life of those working in-house: The employed sector accounts for nearly a quarter (23%) of solicitors holding practising certificates, with the largest sector being commerce and industry, which employs about 15,000 in-house counsel.
About half work in departments with three or fewer legal staff, a quarter work on their own. Almost all undertake some legal casework personally; commission and manage the work of external legal advisers; and undertake some administrative work. Almost all felt either very or fairly valued by their employers. Nine out of ten had trained in private practice, only 7% in house. So how is life as a corporate counsel?
Damien Johnson has just qualified after completing his training contract at the West Bromwich Building Society. ‘It is good to develop a business brain as well as a legal one,’ he says.
He joined the building society in 2003 as a paralegal after finishing his law degree and LPC. His commitment was rewarded with a training contract in 2006, the first to be run by the building society. ‘If you train in-house, you need to make sure it satisfies a wide aspect of law,’ he says. ‘I found ours very good because of the size of our business. You are instructed by senior managers and interact with external lawyers so you see a very wide perspective. Our in-house debt recovery team provided very good training on the contentious side.’
He plans to stay in-house, but feels his experience would be valuable if he did decide to move into private practice: ’You would be well equipped to do so because you will be much clearer about what your business clients want from you’
Damien’s training contract was instigated by the building society’s group secretary and legal counsel Simon Welch, a former property solicitor with Wragge & Co and senior lecturer at Nottingham Law School.
Simon advises: ‘If you want to train in-house, pick your institution with care, whether it is a company, local authority or building society. Ask for an overview of the work you’ll be doing or you could spend what will seem like 23 months working on underwater yoghurt farming law and one month squashing in everything else.’
Traditionally, people train in private practice and then move in-house as they increase in seniority, he says, ‘But that is changing a bit. What is important is that you are always looking to better yourself as a solicitor. One of the key aspects of that is client care so you have to be careful you don’t end up in a situation where your ability to develop those skills is compromised.’
Sue Clarke, head of post graduate careers at Nottingham Law School, recommends training and getting experience in private practice first as she says the range of work and clients can be narrower in-house. ‘Working in-house is a really good alternative career path to private practice from two years pqe upwards but probably not before because of the restrictions on what you can learn.’
However, she says there are some exciting training contracts with big companies which train their lawyers alongside their other graduate trainees providing good general business training alongside their legal training.
Martyn Rodmell, group legal counsel at Liverpool-based food and soft drink company Princes. He is the immediate past chair of the 4,500-member Commerce & Industry Group. He says more companies are looking at offering training contracts and, if necessary, they will send their trainees to their external lawyers to make sure they get the proper breadth of experience.
The big local authorities also offer a very wide range of opportunities, with trainees having the added bonus of having rights of audience, while the Crown Prosecution Service offers a very good training scheme for about 40 trainees a year.
‘There are not that many training contract opportunities in-house,’ Sue says. ‘However, some companies and local authorities will take people on as paralegals or legal assistants and, if they are good, they will create a training contract for them. It can be about making your own luck if you are interested in working in those sectors.’
Suzanne Bond, chair of Solicitors in Local Government (SLG) and senior social services lawyer at the London Borough of Hillingdon, says local government training contracts are ‘like gold dust so it is important to do some work experience with an authority to show you are keen’.
She says the SLG is encouraging authorities to ‘grow their own lawyers’ and put more effort into training. Her own authority has just established four training contracts. While she trained and worked in private practice before moving into local government, she says: ‘The ethos has changed a lot over the last decade so legal departments are now being run as businesses. You can get broader experience from your training contract than you would training in a high street firm and, while you still have to do the grunt work, you will also get a lot more responsibility earlier on.’
For junior lawyers thinking of making the jump from private practice, Simon Welch advice is to consider carefully whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist. Generalists will ‘have interesting work but it is difficult to develop any substantial body of knowledge in any one area’. However, he also advises that specialism in-house may restrict options further down the line, so it’s worth choosing your options according to what interests you most.
For Jo Bower, deputy company secretary and corporate counsel of global engineering firm IMI Plc, the attraction of working in-house is being ‘in the thick of the business decisions, very much hands on and with an unbelievable mix of work’.
She trained with national firm Pinsent Mason, moving to IMI, initially as assistant company secretary, a year after qualifying. ‘As a newly qualified solicitor, I was never going to get the level of exposure to the senior management of a listed Plc that I did when I moved. There was no safety net and that appealed to me.’
However, she believes it is important to have time in private practice first. ‘You need to know how law firms work. The discipline of recording your time and managing multiple files is a very good grounding. But, when I came here, I also realised how narrow my knowledge was.’
The Law Society survey found that the median salary for all full time corporate counsel, irrespective of position, was £80,000 for 2007/8. However, it also identified a pay gap between male and female in-house solicitors and substantial differences in salaries outside London.
Jo says her pay compares favourably with private practice. ‘When I moved here, my salary went up 15/20% and the benefits are phenomenal. Now 10 years pqe, I am still comfortably at the same level as a salaried partner in a biggish firm.’
According the survey, the main reason respondents gave for moving in-house was for a better work life balance. Though the results showed in-house counsel worked as many hours, on average, as in private practice, three quarters said a move back was not very or not at all likely.
Jo says it is a ‘common misconception’ that in-house counsel work fewer hours. ‘The focus on the Enron and Worldcom scandals means the in-house lawyer is now the guardian of the company’s ethics and compliance. Since I joined, in-house counsel have been catapulted into the spotlight and your role is now 24/7. You have to be available, and, if you work for a global company, that means getting calls from colleagues in California at 11pm swiftly followed by colleagues in Japan at 6am.’
Suzanne Bond stresses: ‘You don’t go into local government to work shorter hours. You still have to do your billable time but you can work flexi-time and you are encouraged to take your leave and have a life beyond your work.’
Sue Clarke agrees: ‘You get better perks with a large company. Salaries may not be as high but the overall package may be better and more flexible. Local government salaries tend to be lower but the work/life balance may be better. What you need to do is think early on what your priorities are.’
A growing issue for students, trainees and newly qualified solicitors as the economy goes into a tailspin is job security, so does the corporate sector offer any reassurance?
Jo believes the risks are the same in-house as in private practice. ‘We are lean and mean with three in our team so I think we will ride this out. But a big legal department may decide to cut staff and outsource more routine work, which would help private practice, or do more in-house, which would benefit their own lawyers and hurt private practice.’
‘If you work in-house, you are as likely to be culled as in private practice,’ says Sue. ‘There are redundancies happening in both.’
Suzanne agrees. ‘The idea that you are more secure in-house doesn’t wash at the moment – it is as risky or as safe as private practice.’