December 7, 2023
Aspiring solicitors often picture themselves at a law firm by default. However, the work of an in-house lawyer is also worth considering.

What Is An In-house Lawyer?

In-house lawyers are qualified lawyers in England and Wales who do not work for a legal services provider (e.g. a law firm), but rather as part of a legal department within another type of organisation.

These lawyers often qualify as solicitors rather than barristers, since the former suits the type of work regularly encountered in an in-house setting (barristers will still be instructed externally when needed).

In-house Lawyer Qualifications

If you are looking to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales, the process has recently changed – from the LPC route to the SQE route, as dictated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Alongside this change in examinations, the qualification route as a whole has now changed as well.

The formerly rigid requirements of a two-year fixed training contract (essentially a period of work experience with a law firm) have now been replaced with the requirement for two years of more broadly-defined ‘Qualifying Work Experience’ (QWE). Trainee solicitors are now able to complete these two years of training across a number of organisations (four maximum) and, most importantly for aspiring in-house lawyers, across different types of organisations. This includes not just not just law firms, but also any type of organisation where you will be offering legal services.

Many organisations are now offering training contracts (or equivalents which satisfy QWE requirements) in-house as a result – including anything from the Government Legal Service (GLS) to Amazon or Sky. Not only training contracts are being offered, either – in-house legal teams were some of the first to embrace the newly introduced solicitor apprenticeship route. The first person to qualify through that route was Holly Moore, a solicitor apprentice from the in-house legal team at ITV.

Training at an in-house setting has pros and cons. On one hand, you’ll receive excellent depth of knowledge on matters relevant to your client’s business, and equally there will be a variety of practice areas which you are expected to get involved in. For example, one in-house lawyer at a company might deal with both IP and employment issues – a less specialised role.

On the other hand, this might lead to less coverage in certain areas. For example, an in-house trainee at a media company might not get much exposure to private equity in the same way a Magic Circle or elite US firm trainee would.

Working As An In-house Lawyer

In-house lawyers are often less specialised than those working at a law firm. Whereas a Clifford Chance associate might, for example, have carved out a real niche for themselves in an area of debt capital markets, an in-house lawyer is often expected to wear many hats (providing more base-level advice on a variety of matters).

In a way this makes it more varied (lots of different legal issues to consider), although at the same time those issues are always arising in the context of the same client. It is therefore really important to have a genuine interest in the organisation you’re working in.

Many general tasks carried out by these lawyers are the same as those in law firms – drafting contracts, negotiating, conducting legal research, etc. In-house lawyers will need the added ability to instruct external help. This could include the in-house general counsel of a company reaching out to a partner at a law firm for extra assistance on a matter of specialism.

Many of the same legal skills also apply here (for example teamwork, critical thinking and excellent communication), though arguably there is an even heavier sense of collaboration when working in-house as the organisation as a whole is moving in a particular direction.


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In-house Lawyer Salaries

The first point worth making here is that in-house salaries are far less predictable. There is no clear sense of a ‘benchmark’ in the context of in-house practice as there is with law firm salaries (for example Magic Circle NQs currently earn around ‘X’, whereas Silver Circle NQs currently earn around ‘Y’).

Furthermore, in-house legal jobs rarely follow a rigid ‘lockstep’ model in the same way that law firms do (where you can quite easily predict your career trajectory, and thus salary, going forwards, by looking at the people above you). In-house legal teams tend to be smaller, with job opportunities coming and going in a more unpredictable manner.

Another point worth noting is that the salaries will vary massively based on the type of organisation you are joining. An in-house lawyer for an indie film company is likely to earn a fraction of what an in-house lawyer for BlackRock earns – though this is partially due to the practice area rather than simply the organisation.

Generally, you will hear people discussing the idea of a pay cut when going in-house from originally working at a law firm. However, the factors above make this a rather complicated statement to definitively make (especially when, at the top end of in-house legal teams at huge companies, you have general counsels like Kate Adams at Apple earning £20 million a year).

Working Conditions

Work-life balance in-house is a contentious issue. On the one hand, there is a general expectation that hours are better in-house, since your own co-workers are essentially your clients, and there is a more balanced expectation that you will respect each other’s need for a work-life balance. This is in contrast to the stranger on the other end of the phone at some law firm that will be billing you huge amounts. You certainly won’t be following the billable hours model that law firms often do (with some firms setting annual targets in excess of 2000 hours), and so there is some relief there.

At the same time, however, you are much closer to the action – if someone wants to get hold of you, they can be standing at your desk the moment you return from lunch. Some law firm staff prefer the distance between themselves and the clients, giving them a sense of ‘breathing space’ which is lacking in-house.

In short, in-house lawyers experience unique aspects of legal practice which have both pros and cons – but which is certainly worth at least considering for aspiring lawyers (especially solicitors) in England and Wales.


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