When you are in private practice you are a fee-earner rather than a cost centre. As such private practice lawyers earn more money than in-house counsel and it goes hand in hand with working longer hours. Being in a law firm also offers the opportunity to work on cutting edge deals and to understand the latest legal developments, this means continuous ongoing education and training and access to information and knowledge through your network.
There is great deal of satisfaction in doing sophisticated and challenging work that private practice offers along with the financial rewards that come along with it. Further there is an added prestige factor associated with being in a law firm that can advise on the most sophisticated transactions. The luxury of staying in private practice allows you to focus on the law and not be distracted by other issues including administrative duties and people management, which in-house counsel often end up doing.
As many firms still follow a lockstep career path your upward trajectory is more of a straight forward process. Large law firms have an organisation hierarchy that creates more opportunities for promotion. The path from associate to managing associate then partner seems relatively straight forward and transparent. In contrast few in-house counsels make it into senior level management roles, and there is only one General Counsel.
What do you need to succeed in a firm?
Your clients are your lifeblood and over time you will need to be able to develop a book of contacts and eventually a book of business which follows you. In the process of becoming a partner you will need to cultivate relationships inside a firm as well and of particular importance is to find a partner that is willing to mentor you and sponsor your partnership ambitions. In an increasingly tough commercial environment aspiring law firm partners need strong business development skills in additional to outstanding technical skills along with the energy to succeed and the time to dedicate oneself to the role. The billing pressures that come with being at the top of the law firm tree are onerous and only those dedicated to the role succeed.
The benefits of moving back to practice’
Less discussed, but increasingly common today, is the move from in-house back to practice. There are many factors in weighing up this decision and we have seen a number of successful cases where professionals move back at Partner level.
Having worked on the other side of the fence, your commercial skills and understanding of what’s important to clients should give you an edge on your peers. Often law firms are criticised by their clients for failing to understand their business and focusing on the wrong issues and not providing clear advice. For those with previous in-house experience, you should be able to bring another level of commercial awareness that most peers cannot and your ability to understand what your client wants and expects is a valuable skill set to bring to market.
As the in-house counsel, you might also have been involved in innovative products that only in-house counsel can experience. For example, a derivatives lawyer at an investment bank might have exposure to how the latest regulation is impacting how the bank operates. Being a previous in-house counsel also means you are likely to have good ties with your previous in-house employer, and a law firm may hope to leverage that into a profitable relationship.
The challenges in moving back to practice
Dependent on your length of tenure in-house and the depth of training you had before moving in-house, many law firms will perceive your skills to be out of date and rusty. Firms are more likely to invest in an up and coming lawyer than a professional seeking refuse in Private Practice. In-house lawyers are also perceived to be behind the curve in terms of legal developments and are less informed of new regulations.
By its very nature, in-house lawyers are most often generalists and do a mixture of work. In contrast, private practice lawyers are highly specialised in one particular area of the law and hence in-house lawyers don’t necessarily fit with the departmentalised nature of law firms.
Even if you have strong relationships with your former employer, you might not be able to crack open a panel of law firm advisors that has already been established. Further, you will be less able to demonstrate a track record of client development outside your previous employer and a law firm will need a strong business plan from you plus a long term commitment from them to achieve success. This is not always feasible.
In conclusion the ease at which you will be able to move from an in-house position to private practice is dependent on a great number of factors, but most importantly your seniority and specialism can most impact how easily you transition back to practice.
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