Going directly from law school to an in-house role has not been the stock standard route for most legal professionals. The unspoken expectation has been that graduates complete a clerkship and a graduate program before cutting their teeth on further private practice work. But times are changing - and legal pathways too.
Graduates now see the advantages of moving to in-house earlier. Tempted by work that offers a commercial and legal hybrid of sorts, they want to be with a company they align with on a values basis. And the more forgiving lifestyle offered by in-house roles can sway the vote.
Many young law graduates have a breadth of skills and interests. While their studies may have taught them the theoretical application of the law, they have likely developed concurrent practical skills in business, technology, or other discipline areas as well. This is where in-house roles present a great opportunity. Not only do they let graduates develop practical legal skills and understanding; they allow for the integration of business acumen and other skill savviness.
An opportunity to gain applied legal skills whilst operating as a core business function is worth a long hard stare. Being an in-house lawyer gives graduates a platform to become a T-Shaped lawyer, someone who possesses a legal depth as well as a breadth of multidisciplinary skills. Such an individual is far better prepared for a future where the demands on lawyers are increasingly diverse.
Hays UK Recruitment reports high demand for junior in-house lawyers in the industries of commercial, IT and corporate organizations, and an even higher demand in technology businesses and startups. These in-house teams are also growing in size and capability as more work remains in-house, increasing the capacity of legal teams to take on junior lawyers. With that in mind, let’s consider the type of organizations that may get a young lawyer excited about going in-house.
Think startups. Big and small, from the likes of Bumble to Who Gives A Crap. These innovative companies provide graduates with opportunities to experience rapid growth while tackling the legal and commercial challenges that come with a growing business and industry. They get to learn invaluable entrepreneurial skills and business acumen through osmosis, something a more hierarchical structure does not offer. Innovative companies are more likely to provide a work environment of like-minded young professionals and a less traditional structure. Kate Sherburn, Senior Legal Counsel of Who Gives A Crap, calls it “working with less bureaucracy and red tape”. The freedom afforded by the startup culture encourages the legal team to just get on with it.
Whilst lawyers who move in-house early often feel aligned to the company they work for; a private practice legal firm does not necessarily offer the same moral alignment. Today’s graduates are more likely to be attracted to a sustainability startup, or the novelty of being involved in technology companies such as Uber or Google, rather than the predictability of ‘The Firm’. As Sherburn says: “One of many benefits of working in a values-based company is that it brings together a group of brilliant, passionate people and allows us to work in unison towards a common goal.” Which provides a lawyer with a great sense of purpose and of belonging to a larger cause.
There is no denying the hours required from an in-house lawyer are much more forgiving than in private practice. Many private practice firms continue to adhere to the belief that “first in, last out” of the office is the pathway to success. In-house lawyers work differently. In general, their organizations promote a healthy work-life balance. Yes, of course, working in-house lawyers must still pull some late nights - and one must factor in catering to international time zones - but, as a rule, an in-house life is more compatible with flexibility. Sherburn appreciates this; she can strike a balance between dedicating her time to her work whilst still being present for her family.
Such flexibility appeals to graduate lawyers. Research from the Deloitte 2020 Global Millennial Survey shows that younger workers see a direct and positive correlation between remote working and employee satisfaction. They value time and lifestyle more than previous generations. In-house law provides them with the opportunity to have a meaningful career as a legal practitioner as well as having time to spend with friends, family and pursuing hobbies.
In-house lawyers working more humane hours can be credited to the fact they do not bill by the hour or six-minute increment as do their private practice counterparts. The absence of this billing pressure creates a more even balance of power between the client (generally the organization) and the lawyer as they are not reliant on the client for a fee. This allows the legal team to work in the same manner that the organization mandates for all employees.
According to Deborah Grimason, General Counsel and Company Secretary at Travis Perkins plc, the absence of chargeable time also has other benefits: “You work in an environment that is driven by more than chargeable hours and fees, and you can get involved in financials, supply chain, procurement and project management. Which gives you the experience to become General Counsel.”
It allows for professional growth beyond a legal lens: the T-Shaped lawyer. Myriad benefits exist for those who move early to in-house. And these benefits align with the professional goals and personal values of junior lawyers. Today’s legal graduates have options. The grind of private practice is one way to progress a career but so too is a move into the world of business.
Kate Sherburn is the Senior Legal Counsel at Australia startup - Who Gives A Crap. She was also named as the ACC Australia New to In-House Lawyer of the Year in 2020.