Transitioning from Private Practice to In-House
Published: 27 Oct 2015 By Jonathan Matthews, Pro-Legal
From private practice to In-House to a hybrid in-house/client facing legal role, via London, Amsterdam, Luzern (Switzerland) and New York – my experiences of some of the practical differences and factors to take into account if you are considering a move In-House….
Why did I want to move In-House?
My reasoning for moving out of private practice into an in-house role probably sounds familiar to many. I wanted to: (i) get closer to the workings of a single business as opposed to dealing with ad hoc matters of several entities at a shallower depth of wider commercial understanding, (ii) work with and alongside all departments and members of a corporate entity at vertical and horizontal levels; and (iii) establish greater control over my work/life balance.
Were my initial assumptions realistic or mostly naïve guesswork?
They were, truth be told, a little of the former and a lot of the latter. With hindsight I was probably a little under-prepared for the initial culture shock during my first year in-house. Why so?
'Understanding a business' is an incredibly all-encompassing process. It necessitates pro-activity, sitting down with each individual team within your business, being willing to speak their language, understand their unique commercial drivers and prioritise your own workload accordingly. It very quickly involves being taken out of your ‘comfort zone’, particularly in any kind of 'general commercial' In-House role where any legal issue might land on your desk at any given time.
Overcome the fear factor
During my first 6 months in-house, I was, albeit as a trained and qualified Asset Finance Lawyer, advising on tax issues, real estate matters and resolving litigation disputes in South America, none of which I was previously familiar with. This led on to dealing with all issues arising out of a large internal corporate restructuring, various items of consequential M&A work, employment law issues, the establishment of new overseas subsidiary companies and an understanding of the regulatory regimes within new territories. As such, there is an inevitable initial fear factor to be overcome as regards not shying away from the legal unknown (be it within a 'general commercial' in-house role or within a more specialised in-house role where you may very well need to look at certain legal issues outside of your immediate specialism) and being happy to embrace and deal with it sensibly and practically.
Equally as marked a shift as regards the culture and personality fit. My experiences of working in private practice often involved working in silo. Working in-house, where your legal knowledge is, as far as your commercial colleagues are concerned, essentially an assumed given, the more succinct, practical, easy to read and problem-solving the answer you can relatively quickly provide, the better. I found this initially rather unnerving, as often felt I did not have enough time available to undertake the level of legal research I'd previously been used to. Any given day could naturally develop out into working across various individual matters (as in private practice) but also switching mindset across entirely different legal disciplines and areas, some legal, some commercial, some simply discussing what's happening internally within the company and its wider governing industry.
Make a decision
Independent decision-making is key. If I were a General Counsel looking to recruit an In-House Lawyer, it would be vital for me to be satisfied that my new hire could demonstrate the capacity and, equally as importantly, the desire, to be able to do this relatively quickly - the less a candidate would need, and wish, to be micro-managed in the medium to long-term the better. This is a bit of a gap to jump from the usual array of qualifications and assumptions which are more common comforting fallbacks for lawyers in private practice.
Working in-house, decision-making is a crucial skill-set to be able to fall back on at any given time, be it an instant piece of advice to a colleague in the sales or marketing team or a final recommendation to your board of directors that a particular contract is ready to be signed or confirming immediate instructions to your outside foreign counsel as regards an ongoing piece of litigation.
My second in-house role was more of an unusual hybrid role, in that whilst it was also within a commercial entity's own legal team, that company in effect in turn worked for one sole external client, with all ultimate sign-offs on contracts resting with that client. I found this frustrating, having become more accustomed to running with legal issues from start to finish. In essence it began to represent a personal mindset shift back to private practice and re-confirmed to me that there are very marked differences between in-house and private practice.
Having gone full circle from training and then practising in private practice to working in-house and then switching to an in-house/private practice type hybrid role, I feel well positioned and am happy to offer further advice to you if you are considering your next private practice and/or in-house move.
Jonathan trained at Allen & Overy LLP, qualifying into the asset finance team of the banking department and spending 18 months there post qualification. He then moved into a general commercial in-house Legal Counsel role for over 5 years at Sportingbet Plc before moving out to Switzerland for over 3 years to join TEAM Marketing as In-House Legal Counsel advising a single client, UEFA, as to a wide range of football related media and sponsorship rights.
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