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Do you need your private practice stripes to be an effective in-house counsel

It's tradition for in-house lawyers to cut their teeth in private practice before making a move into a business. They've suffered through the billable hour, hierarchal partnership model and gruelling hours, entering an in-house role with an immense sense of relief. You've no doubt heard people say things like, "I need more experience" or "I should learn from lawyers first."

Yet this notion is slowly changing, as the in-house community asks the question, why are we slogging our way through private practice only to come in-house and unlearn these Big Law ways of working? The reality is, an in-house lawyer is also a business person, providing integrated advice that aligns with business priorities - which is something private practice can't teach. We delve into the controversial topic - do we still need our private practice stripes?

Reasons for Getting Your Private Practice Stripes

Exposure to the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Working in a law firm is a perfect encapsulation of what it is to practice law. High stakes, high stress and high quality apply equally to expectations, clients and work. You’ll be required to provide high-quality outputs in niche areas with rapid turnaround times. On the plus side, you're exposed to some of the top minds in each area of the law, from Magic Circle partners to Barristers and High Court Justices. Minuses include being yelled at by top-tier clients if your work isn’t up to scratch.

Investment and Training is Incentivized

Unlike in-house, private practice is a profit center. Their ability to output profit is directly correlated to the level of investment the firm places in them. Firms like to build up and polish their profit centers because the ROI is exponential, as long as they are continually invested in, coached, mentored and tested. The training you receive should be of the highest quality, presided over by some of the best minds in the business, because long-term it will benefit the firm.

You Might Love It!

You may love life in private practice, in fact you may well become a High Court Justice or a brilliant barrister. But you won’t know that unless you give private practice a go. If you try it and it’s not for you, the transition in-house will be much smoother than going the other way, moving from a restrictive environment to one offering more freedom and expression.

Natural Networking

Private practice lawyers gain access to people who are on track to become top litigators, judges and partners. It is likely you'll share some collegiality with these high-flyers, albeit through your shared suffering. You'll be able to access them for informal, off-the-record advice if you’re faced with difficult problems or need highly specialized information.

Law is a Service Industry

Private practice gives you the opportunity to focus on the art of client service. There is a clear delineation between yourself as a service provider and the client. You need to be aware of that, just as you need to be objective, independent, and able to give good counsel. Furthermore, your client incurs a cost for each six-minute interval of your workday, so you must maximize your productivity within those billable units. The productivity and quality you bring with you from private practice to an in-house environment will set you apart and enable you to add massive value from the off.

Reasons for Ditching the Private Practice Stripes

Holistic Commercial Advice vs Top-Down Legal Interpretation

Working in-house requires that you fully understand the organization you’re in and its goals as opposed to optimizing your work for a profit structure. Your advice needs to be bespoke and consider not only a strict legal interpretation of a matter but also take into account a holistic understanding of the organization’s objectives. You’ll develop a keen commercial awareness and be able to apply that to a wider variety of practice areas and matter types compared to private practice.

Eating What You Kill

As the billable hour is at the core of private practice firms, there is a greater focus on individual achievement compared to in-house as your worth is intrinsically linked to your ability to produce billable units.  This leads lawyers to work harder not smarter and in a more isolated manner. It can contribute to ill health and burnout. Additionally, these lawyers have trouble adjusting to life in-house and tend to further silo themselves due to their unfamiliarity with such a team-oriented environment.

Information Overload

In-house lawyers pride themselves on their ability to provide just enough information to enable their organization to act speedily. Clarity and effective communication are lauded in-house. There is much less pressure to adopt a lawyer persona or stun your clients with an unhelpful flourish of Latin to justify your expense. In-house lawyers use their communication skills to help their organizations navigate ambiguity as opposed to the oft black-and-white world of private practice.


The longer you stay in a private practice environment the more you become institutionalized in doing things the law firm way. Your ability to provide creative solutions to novel problems is stunted as you must focus on billing as opposed to building relationships and providing genuine value to your client.


As in-house counsel work in cutting edge organizations, they’re embedded in a culture of innovation; encouraged to adopt technology and find outside-the-box solutions or improvements to workflow. Private practice means you're a slave to precedent files as long-established ways of working.

Just to play devil's advocate...

The points above are fair and good, but we wouldn't be an in-house legal community without some healthy debate.

Rebuttal to Getting Your Private Practice Stripes

Tiresome Tropes

You can be an outstanding lawyer if you haven’t trained in private practice; no standard specifies in-house trained or private practice trained. All lawyers are lawyers, held to the same standards and accountable to the same things.

Thrown in the deep end

The budgets for in-house legal teams can be small. This means they must do more with less and figure things out they’d otherwise send to external counsel. You get a great variety of work, and can’t rely on templates or a partner to find answers for you. Best of all, because you’re thrown in at the deep end you don’t have to photocopy, do discovery or type your partner’s notes.

Rebuttal To Not Getting Your Private Practice Stripes

Tricky Training

Training in-house is highly reliant on your legal team and general counsel. If they’re not good, you’re left in the lurch. Private practice firms have structured training programs, CLAs and engagements with experts. At worst you’re engaging from the best through osmosis, at best you’re being molded by the brightest minds in the field.


It is easier to move from private practice to in-house than vice versa. The loss of freedom and autonomy, the billables and the suits can be jarring to say the least.

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