Opinion: Making the leap to in-house: when, why and how?

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“Should I go in-house?”
 
It’s a question I’m often asked by lawyers, followed closely by “When is the right time to move?”.
 
The first point I would make is that not everyone is cut out for an in-house legal career.
 
In a high-pressure law firm, it’s tempting to see ‘going in-house’ as some sort of nirvana: no partners, no ridiculous billing targets and no demanding clients.
 
But it’s not that simple. Firstly, if you are a real lawyer’s lawyer – someone who loves to keep across the most recent musings of our High Court and revels in esoteric problem solving - then it’s probably best to stay in a law firm.
 
One of the biggest surprises when you move from a law firm to a corporate environment is that legal advice is not the be-all and end-all of the decision making process.
 
There are other, broader commercial considerations, where the legal aspect becomes just one of many decision points. That’s a real eye-opener for some lawyers, and it’s not something all of them are comfortable with. 
 
EQ versus IQ
 
Another issue to consider is how well you do the ‘soft stuff’. While you will no longer have external clients to keep happy, you will have plenty of demanding internal stakeholders. To be successful, you need to recognise who these people are, what they want, how to build a relationship with them and how to communicate effectively.
 
This can be a new type of challenge if you have come from a law firm, where hierarchies are obvious and all roads lead to the partner. In a business, legal departments tend to be flat and you can be largely on your own to make significant calls.
 
There are also often competing business units with different agendas, so you need to work out how the puzzle fits together and how to navigate those relationships.
 
Emotional intelligence is critical for an in-house role, and it is one of the key qualities AdventBalance looks for in our selection process. It is not something every lawyer possesses.
 
This is not to underestimate the importance of solid legal skills and training. You should spend at least two to three years in a quality law firm, developing as broad a skill set as you can before you make a move in-house. That is where you will gain the essential technical skills that underpin your future as a lawyer.
 
It is also useful to seek out secondments with clients during that time, to get exposure to life ‘outside’. However, there is no substitute for doing the hard yards in a law firm to get a solid technical grounding as a legal professional.
 
Running the business
 
One of the trends we have seen in recent years is for in-house lawyers to branch out of law into more commercial roles. Lawyers who have a good non-legal skill set – from project management to communication – often flourish beyond the legal department, where they can get involved in running the business rather than simply being an adviser.
 
Lawyers who can bust out of the straight-jacket of black-letter law, who are prepared to make calls not just recommendations, may well find a broader commercial role, and a satisfying and successful career in the corporate world.
 
As with most things in life, having a plan and getting the timing right are crucial to making it work.
 
Ken Jagger, Chief Executive Officer, AdventBalance

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