Switching from a Law Firm to In-House Counsel: Things to Consider

By Jeffery Abu

Before now, working as an in-house lawyer was considered being less prestigious compared to working in a law firm, especially for those who leaned towards litigation practice. However, those days are long gone, as in-house counsel offers an alternative in the legal profession.

A good number of young lawyers now have a preference of working as in-house counsel rather than in law firms, as the former has increasingly become more attractive. The reason for this is not farfetched. From being grossly underpaid to heavy workload, and acts of dehumanisation, lawyers are now taking advantage of the more increasing roles as in-house counsel, where there seems to be better work structure, good numeration and work flexibility. Inadvertently, it is not surprising or unusual that working as an in-house counsel is being embraced by lawyers.

Irrespective of this, there is a need to be sure of what lies ahead as you take the decision to move away from a firm. Here are some things worth knowing:

Ensure to research

Making a transition to an in-house role is a huge shift in career, necessitating research into the industry sector and role. You may want to find out what the job entails, working conditions and expectation. You may also want to find out the size of the company or organization you intend working for. A small company will usually have a lawyer who acts as the company’s in-house counsel while bigger ones, on the other hand, have legal departments, comprising two or more lawyers. Knowing this helps to know the level of responsibility or duty expected.

In choosing the industry, you may have to consider where your interest lies. While there are general duties as an in-house lawyer, there are also specific duties associated with each industry sector. It will do you a lot of favour to find out more about these specific duties. Banking and finance, real estate, tech companies and government establishments are some of the sectors usually more disposed to due to its remuneration package.

Research helps you to narrow your scope and know what you are up against.

Know what is expected of you

As an in-house lawyer, one is tasked with the regular duties of;

  • Providing accurate and timely advice on compliance with statutory regulations and business rules;
  • Ensuring adherence to the code of conducts of the profession;
  • Compliance of company policies to be in alignment with the law;
  • Dispute management;
  • Company secretary duties;
  • Vetting legal documents;
  • Representing the employer in court as an agent;
  • Liaising with external solicitors when necessary; and
  • Other regular job descriptions as an in-house counsel.

However, there may be occasions where one will be required to work outside these legal roles. For instance, an in-house counsel may be involved in formulating policies and making business decisions, thereby playing legal and business roles. An in-house counsel’s role is no longer limited to managing legal risk associated with a company, as the role now requires business value input by contributing to developing the strategic direction of the company. A lawyer who makes business inclined decisions arguably finds it easier to connect within the corporate world. The ability to combine these roles will definitely give you an edge.

Also, you will have to be conversant in the practice area of the company’s industry. It is only proper that if you are going in-house in a bank, for example, you have to be knowledgeable in legal issues that may be related in that sector, like financial crimes, data protection, loans and mortgages. Likewise, an in-house lawyer in a real estate firm being knowledgeable in real property, land law, etc. Coming from a commercial law based firm could be an advantage when transitioning to in-house because these are practice areas not new to commercial law firms.

Technology know-how is another key factor as you make that switch. The corporate world has become more digital with new innovations springing up. A lawyer who is coming from a law firm that uses tech in its day-to-day running, adapting may not be a problem. However, if the reverse is the case, then you one may be faced with challenges. Organisations are increasingly looking to improve efficiency, minimize risks and cut costs through technology. Therefore, an in-house lawyer should be able to deploy technology to the company’s benefit, and to avoid risks associated with it.

Emotional intelligence is also required working in-house. Your legal expertise and experience aside, there will be situations where your persuasion, negotiation, and social skills will come into play. You will be required to address different stakeholders in the industry from different backgrounds and perspectives, many of whom will not be lawyers. This means emotional intelligence is a skill as important as your legal skills.

Consequently, business management, executive presence, technology know-how, communication skills, and emotional intelligence are key in-house skills that accompany the role.

It may be difficult to switch back

There is a general belief that skills learned while in a law firm can be easily transferred to suit an in-house position, but only a few of the skills of an in-house role can be successfully translated to that of a practising lawyer in a law firm.

This may not be true because, while law firm experience is very valuable, it does not necessarily prepare one as an in-house counsel.

Unfortunately, law firms prefer employing lawyers with law practice experience over one with in-house experience, although there may be exceptions to this.

Lawyers who make the switch to in-house often never look back in order to avoid the rigours of traditional law practice, and partly because firms have a preference to employ lawyers working in private practice. Before going back to a law firm, you will have to give a good reason or explanation why you want to leave working as an in-house counsel and back to practice. As good a reason as going in-house to achieve certain career goals may be a plausible one, firms may still be skeptical about why you went in-house in the first place.

Nevertheless, though not impossible, but usually when you go in-house, there is a tendency that one will remain in the corporate world as a lawyer, or even transition to another career and leave law altogether into non-law roles in the corporate world.

In conclusion, moving to in-house work is a big decision to make as it has it rewards and challenges, while there are many pros, it is by no means an escape route from ills and woes that comes with working in a law firm. As much as it is a different role, it requires equal, or an increased amount of effort to succeed in it.

In all, if you are not comfortable in traditional law practice, then make that switch to your dream law career endeavour to excel in it.

Jeffery practices law in Lagos and can be reached at  jeffreyabu99@yahoo.com

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