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Remember When Jumping In-House was the ‘Easy Option’…

By Habiba Cullen-Jafar for

“Nobody can work like that,” said an in-house lawyer, remarking on her time working in private practice.

The lawyer, who switched to an in-house role soon after qualifying at a top law firm, believes that the private practice “bubble is going to burst” due to unsustainable working practices, chiefly long and demanding hours.

“It’s just not worth it,” she added.

Indeed, it’s a long and widely-held notion that working in-house offers lawyers a route out of the high pressure world of private practice.

“Everyone I know back [in private practice] is plotting their eventual move in-house,” the lawyer said.

And she’s not wrong. According to a 2022 poll of junior lawyers by legal recruitment firm Taylor Root, 90% of respondents said they’re looking to go in-house, driven by a desire to strike a better work/life balance.

But with law firms looking at innovative ways of making their firm appeal to young lawyers who are less inclined to spend their years toiling in high pressure environments, and with in-house lawyers working under increasingly grueling conditions, could the perception of in-house working being the ‘easier’ of the two options soon come to an end?

The in-house allure

According to the latest figures from The Law Society’s annual report, the total number of in-house lawyers has been creeping up over the past couple of decades. Twelve years ago, in 2011, the Law Society found that in-house lawyers accounted for 20% of practising solicitors in the U.K. But by 2021, this figure had grown to 25%—an increase of 9,793 lawyers from the previous decade.

Taylor Root’s head of in-house legal, Sarah Ingwersen, believes that one reason for this growing popularity has always been this promise of a better work/life.

“Previously lawyers looked to move in-house for greater flexibility and work/life balance.”

She stresses, however, that “working in-house has never been the easier option, it just offers a different focus and way of working”.

Adam Stocker, a recruiter at Major Lindsey & Africa explores this difference.

“One allure of in-house, beyond the perception of agile working, is the reality that you do have a more predictable and shorter working day.

“In private practice, particularly transactional, you go through the peaks and troughs of deal flow, this can often result in working much later. Sure you may be at home, but you can still be expected to work into the night.”

But is this way of working on its way out?

As one GC at an international financial institution said: “Young people don’t want to live that kind of lifestyle anymore. I do believe that firms are now under pressure to do these things more. People don’t want to work those hours.”

It seems that firms are listening. For example, elite firms like Slaughter and May are promoting more wholesome ways of working, such as through the introduction of a working practices code that seeks to help associates achieve a better work/life balance.

A shift in working practices

The pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have undoubtedly accelerated some of the largest changes to working conditions in recent times. According to a 2021 McKinsey report, ‘The Future Of Work After COVID’, “four to five times as many people” work from home now “compared to before the pandemic”.

Indeed, in the legal industry, hybrid working arrangements have remained the norm with even firms at the most elite end of spectrum only requiring two to three days in the office. Back in August, elite U.K. firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer announced that it was requiring its London and Manchester workforce to be in office three days a week.

On top of this, the advent of remote working also forced law firms to shine a light on mental health. Back in 2020, elite U.K. firm Allen & Overy “measured mental health” for the first time, and Hogan Lovells regional managing partner for the U.K. and Africa, Susan Bright, said that the firm was using the challenges presented by the COVID-19 lockdown ”as an excuse to look again at our mental health repository”.

Another GC, who trained and qualified in private practice before deciding to embark on an in-house career, also noted how law firms have introduced more accessible career opportunities, which, she said, improve the overall working experience.

“When I was there you’d work really hard, and then either swept up into the partner track, or otherwise you were out. Nowadays there are more pathways. People have different career structures and of course, with the option of working from home, what you’ve got now is a well paid job with that flexibility.”

The GC, who now heads up legal at an international transport company, added that this combination of flexible working and a better company culture has resulted in law firms “actually becoming decent employers” as opposed to the closed shops of previous decades.

Another GC, who held senior in-house positions before taking over her current role at a financial institution, points out that this shift in the industry had actually started to take shape pre-COVID. She cited CMS’ Penelope Warne as a great instigator of change at the firm, a change which has had real-time consequences that exemplify this shift.

“I was catching up with one lawyer I know at CMS. We were talking about partnership track, and career development. She had always planned to move in-house at one point in her career but actually she realised that she was really happy at the firm. I told her if that’s the case, just stay and make partner!”

The in-house myth

Added to this growing sense that things are changing for the better in private practice, many argue that the perception that in-house work is ‘easier’ has no basis.

Tracey Dovaston, a partner at litigation boutique Pallas Partners who spent over a decade of her career in a range of in-house positions, said: “It is a myth that working in-house you work less hours and have a better work-life balance than when in private practice.”

The transport company GC agreed with this view.

“In-house roles have, arguably, over the past 15 years, gotten tougher. They don’t pay as well and sure there are no targets. But I can tell you we’re still working all the hours, and we’re still exposed to all the harshness of the corporate world.”

Another lawyer, now a partner at an elite U.S. firm but with several years working in a senior GC role under his belt, also said that, after a certain level, the differences in work-life balance between in-house and private practice become negligible.

“At this more successful level, I can tell you that the people moving to big PE or investment houses are definitely not doing it for the work-life balance benefits.”

The lawyer notes that, as legal officers climb the in-house ladder, these days they have started taking on more responsibilities than ever before.

So why go in-house ?

Among her clients, Ingwersen noted that “one of the main drivers is the proximity to the business and being involved in commercial decisions from the outset”.

“You really are at the coalface of the business when you work in-house.”

Fellow recruiter Stocker adds that many are attracted to focussing on a variety of sectors or of working more commercially.

Instead the question of work/life balance depends more on the individual, and how they themselves choose to manage their workload.

Dovaston, who moved back to private practice in January 2020, argued that: “It is entirely possible to achieve a balance in both. Much depends on you as an individual and your ability to prioritise and organise yourself. Other hugely important factors include how work is allocated in your team and the culture and environment you develop and maintain.”

What is clear though, is that all of the lawyers who had experiences in both senior private practice and in-house roles extolled the value of working in-house.

“It’s very exciting to move into a business in that way,” said the U.S. firm partner and ex-GC. “You get exposure to a deep level of information about the industry and are privileged to a whole new type of working, this is what pushes you to keep working hard.”