In-house law: how I did it

Sometimes, it can feel as though a training contract with a law firm is the only option. But many lawyers work in-house in legal departments, often from the start of their legal careers. Here, Emma Lilley shares her account of training and working as an in-house lawyer.

  • Last updated Feb 10, 2020 10:12:38 AM
  • Emma Lilley

For many solicitors, working in-house is the long-term goal. There’s lots of advice out there about how to reach this goal, but what if it was actually possible from the start of your legal career? I’m Emma, an in-house lawyer with one-year Post-Qualified Experience. Granted, I’m a junior, but bear with me here. Hopefully my journey will help you to make up your mind about whether working in-house is for you.

Education—initial doubts 

I wasn’t one of those who always aspired to be a lawyer. I was academic and planned to go to university, but hadn’t decided on a profession.

My passion was music. So, in the absence of any other ideas, I applied to universities that specialised in this subject. My A-level results were disastrous, so my conditional offers weren't satisfied. After taking some time to panic, I sought out the available options for clearing. Thankfully, Staffordshire University offered me a place on the LLB. But this came with a price; an additional Foundation year costing me more in fees. I sucked it up and enrolled. 

I rapidly became consumed by the amount of work. I quickly regretted not taking A-level law—I already felt behind, struggling with what was regarded as the basics. 

On top of that, I still had lots of questions about the different avenues into law. What was it actually like to be a solicitor or a barrister? What was the difference, and why did I not know this? Would I really get a job, and would I even enjoy it? On top of this, it was constantly drilled into us that the competition was huge—being honest, I found myself wondering whether I was working hard for something just because it was expected for the next stage, not because my heart was in it. 

More truth bombs—applying for training contracts two years in advance seemed senseless. Spending hours researching law firms just so I could impress took its toll, on top of the already-heavy workload. Law fairs intimidated me—again, I attended because I felt I had to, not because I genuinely wanted to. I felt the pressure: either compete against thousands of other students who actually had the A-level results that law firms ask for, or don't qualify. 

As my degree progressed, I learned more about the legal career path. A postgraduate course costing over £10k, plus even more exams during the training contract (if I ever got one) didn’t do much to sell it. I’d stumbled into this—how would I meet my own expectations of success? 

I believed for a long time that my only option would be private practice work. As I'd been told that this came with long hours, no work-life balance and working in one area of law, I began to look at other suitable career options for a law degree. Don't get me wrong, I admire those who are an expert in one area of law—it just wasn’t for me. Nor was I interested in ‘partner’ status. So I started to explore what else was out there.

Understanding in-house

During a shift at my part-time job, a colleague pointed out the company's lawyers in an office next to ours. Lawyers, working in a business? This was news to me. Naturally I began to explore, and learned a lot about the opportunities that in-house can bring. There wasn't much information out there, but through speaking to people already based in-house, I began to work it out for myself.

I was equally surprised about the number of in-house teams—and this was back in 2014, so there are likely more now. I trawled LinkedIn for in-house lawyers, explored their history (the majority trained in private practice) and used this to plan my own path. 

Once I'd discovered that it was possible to work in-house without moving away from my family, my enthusiasm grew. It seemed a different culture entirely. My fellow students were amazed that it was a “thing”.

From paralegal to training contract  

I focused my job applications on in-house paralegal roles, and made it apparent in interviews that I was looking to qualify in-house. After some time, I secured a job and put my all into it, aiming to impress at every task. The role was varied, and evolved from administrative tasks to drafting. I gained a lot of experience in a short amount of time due to the fast-moving pace of the business.

I worked as a paralegal for 18 months, during which time the business agreed to fund my LPC. I recognise that I’m extremely fortunate to have secured both LPC funding and a training contract, but this isn't as rare as you may think. If you prove yourself to the business, it will invest in your future.

I straddled the LPC part-time over my time as a paralegal, moving to trainee in September 2016 when the business approved my training contract. There was a little bit of extra research needed on my part, as I was the first person to be trained by the company—I had to learn about the SRA registration myself, for example.

As part of my training, I completed a secondment in private practice for three months. Aside from confirming that I was happy in-house, understanding billing and ways of working comes in useful when instructing lawyers on a specific project. I qualified in-house after being awarded six months' time to count for my paralegal experience—well worth looking into if you start out as a paralegal!

Some common misconceptions about working in-house

Myth: the opportunities are limited

You’re a law student—you know by now that it’s down to you to create your own opportunities. I know it’s tough, but the more you use your initiative and think outside the box, the more options you will end up with. Feel free to use my method of LinkedIn stalking, engage agencies and speak to as many people as you can. You'll soon learn how to find those roles that interest you and allow you to craft your own career path.  

Myth: you get paid less

The pay will not always be less than private practice. For both routes, this depends on the size of the firm or business as well as the location. However, from my experience, there’s not much difference between the two. 

Also, don’t forget to consider the benefits package as a whole, including bonuses and perks. To take an example, the ability to work from home may save you a significant amount of money in travel. You should also consider the position throughout your whole career, not just as a junior. The pay at a senior level compared to junior may differ much more across the two paths.

Myth: private practice experience is necessary

This may be useful, but it is not a step that you absolutely have to tick off before moving in-house. I've read so many times that you have to get private practice experience before moving in-house, with many articles even stipulating the amount of years (the average seems to be four). This isn’t necessarily the modern view. Personally, I would argue that the necessary business expertise required to succeed in-house is better earned working in-house, rather than in private practice. If your mind is made up, why waste the time? 

Myth: you have to do three separate seats 

If I had a pound for the number of times I was asked, “How did you satisfy your three seats then?” know the rest. The SRA guidance update in 2014 introduced flexibility into the training contract (Period of Recognised Training). This meant that providing you satisfy the elements listed (including character and suitability) and your training principal signs this off, you’re deemed to have earned qualification. This is great for in-house trainees, as it means you can complete the whole of your training contract in-house without worrying about not having the necessary experience in comparison to your peers. In-house training generally covers all aspects at once, rather than having periods in set areas of law—and the flexibility introduced by the SRA permits this.

Myth: you have to complete the LPC before you start your training contract

You may be surprised to hear that it’s possible to complete the LPC and train at the same time. This may leave you with limited time to complete the Professional Skills Course (PSC), but the SRA recognises this and may allow you to submit your PSC results after the official end date of your Period of Recognised Training. If you’re in doubt about any route you’re looking to take, call the SRA. They are extremely helpful.

Myth: there is limited career progression 

I get it, “partner” sounds great. You’re almost conditioned to aspire to this. But what if you could be “head of legal”, or “legal director”? What about branching out and being a subject-matter expert internally within a business? There are so many options for progression, just as there are for private practice. The network that you build along the way will fuel this, not just the career path you take.

Myth: in-house lawyers don’t work as hard 

This is another comment I still hear quite often in conversation. Although said in jest, lots of people mention how “chilled” they perceive the role to be. But this is not necessarily the case. Working on multiple, complex areas of law at once is challenging in its own right, never mind when you have your stakeholders sat in the same building as you. I don't have enough experience across both to compare the two, but I can confidently state that in-house work can be extremely pressurised. That being said—it’s not a competition, people!

Final advice

Frequently question yourself: do you really want to be working in a role that doesn't suit you? In law, you’re working for the long term, not just to reach the next stage.

Play to your strengths: learn what legal and soft skills you excel at, and capitalise on these. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses—resist comparing and use the strengths of others as inspiration.

Create your own opportunities—don't just wait for a role to be advertised, make the first move! You have nothing to lose by approaching a potential employer, whether this is for a role now or in the long-term future.

Stick by those who support you—a manager who believes in you is worth more than gold. Never underestimate this, appreciate and never forget everything they do for you along the way. Who knows, you may be able to reciprocate this one day. 

Legal training is a long journey. From university to qualification, it took me eight years. And due to not having all the relevant information, I almost didn’t see it through to the end. 

Your training years are a long time to dislike what you’re doing daily—and trust me, it helps to be as upbeat as you can when the stress piles on. Try to find the positives in each step of your career and keep striving for your goal. You will get there!

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