Choosing the right career path in law is obviously an important decision. It’s a good idea to weigh up all the pros and cons before you make the jump. Ultimately it is down to your personal preferences, your long terms goals, values and preferred working style when deciding whether you will find a private practice or an in-house position is the best fit for you.
What is private practice?
Private practice lawyers will usually work for a law firm that deals with a variety of clients. Some firms specialise in particular areas of law such as family, immigration, or corporate law. Others may have a broad remit, but you’ll usually be asked to work in one department.
Generally, private practice lawyers will specialise in one specific area of law, particularly at the beginning of their career. Whilst this means that your work/cases will generally be within the same field, it is a great opportunity to specialise in an area of law and boost your future earning potential as you build up your experience.
In contrast, working as an in-house lawyer will usually mean you are part of an organisation’s legal team where the company is your only client. This usually brings opportunities to deal with a wide range of legal issues that arise within the organisation. Working in-house often means that no two days are the same as you’ll deal with whatever issue comes your way during the course of business operations.
This can be both exciting and daunting as you may be given a task that you’ve never experienced before, meaning you may have to think on your feet and react quickly. As such, working within an in-house legal team will certainly expand your breadth of knowledge and force you to think outside of the box and outside of your comfort zone. You may need to build an understanding and knowledge of various areas of law like commercial contracts, intellectual property, commercial property and employment law.
How can I choose the right path?
Everyone is different when it comes to work preferences. Ultimately, you should be happy and motivated in your legal role. There are plenty of opportunities out there in both in-house and private practice so whatever you choose, you always have the option of moving role if a position isn't exactly what you are looking for.
In saying this, something that may help you decide whether in-house OR private practice is for you is asking yourself the following questions:
1. Do I want to generalise or specialise?
If your goal is to become a generalist or a specialist legal professional, then this will help to determine whether private practice or in-house is right for you. In some cases, it may be possible to specialise within an in-house legal department as it may be split up into different teams, but generally in-house lawyers are generalists. However, each business is different in its set up and it is important to do research into the type of work involved and how a team operates.
Working within a small in-house legal team can really help build up your skills and knowledge as you’re having to deal with varied legal matters on a daily basis. On the other hand, if you want to focus on one area of law (from corporate to property or family or private client) and learn about legal processes and procedures and possibly deal with claims or attending court, private practice may be the better option.
With in-house work, the majority of tasks may involve giving practical legal advice through phone calls or emails to different departments or senior managers to help prevent business risks for instance. It is therefore unlikely that you’ll have to go through the same legal processes every day as you would with conveyancing cases, drafting wills or immigration applications in a law firm. This means that with in-house work, you may learn how to do something and then have to ‘brush up’ on it again in future, as you aren’t used to doing it all the time. In turn, private practice enables you expand your specific legal knowledge and to learn how to go through legal procedures and hone your skills by doing similar work on a regular basis. You need to work out what your long-term goals are and what you find interesting.
2. What are my values and long-term goals
Your values could mean that you are keen to help people. In which case, being part of a private law firm will likely give you more opportunities to help individuals (albiet paid help!), whereas in-house work would involve resolving problems for a corporation instead. Long-term goals could be to work your way up an organisation or become an expert in a particular field of law.
If you value work-life balance, it’s worth considering how the organisation measures your progress. Most private practice law firms have billing targets which means that many lawyers work beyond their contracted hours to meet them. With in-house roles, it is often that such demands are not expected, and doing traditional working hours are more standard practise
3. What do I enjoy?
Choosing the right path will also depend on your personality such as whether you enjoy working as part of a team, representing a larger organisation or whether you prefer to have your own clients. Although it’s not always the case, much of private practice involves each individual having their own caseload of clients (individuals or companies), whereas in-house work would involve everyone working collectively towards the same goals, which can create a sense of comradery and collaboration. However, you do still have the opportunity to work within a team in private practice, as you often have paralegals and solicitors and partners, working on one case or matter together for one client.
If you like communicating with your clients, updating them regularly on their cases and being a point of contact, private practice will suit you. Alternatively, if you find this stressful, then in-house work will often take this burden away, as you’ll probably be communicating within your team and within the organisation as a whole.
There are many overlaps and some contrasts between in-house and private practice legal work. Don’t forget that if you choose the “wrong” path you can always change course at some point. Before you choose a role within either a private practice or in-house team, it is a good idea to check all the points we’ve mentioned here and research the law firm or organisation very carefully to make sure it is the right fit for you. Specialist legal recruitment consultants can assist with this, as they should have an overview of any role they are working on and in-depth details of the hiring organisation, so you can be briefed before you even meet your prospective employer for the first time at interview.
If we can assist you and you might appreciate a no obligations discussion, please get in touch with one of your dedicated consultants.