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August 10 2021

How are in-house and private practice different?

Legal Career Tips

James Bosson

James Bosson

Blue buildings rise into the sky against a white background. The Flex Legal ribbon appears beside them.

Studying law, and working in law at a junior level, can prepare you for a lot of things. They can both deepen your understanding of different areas of law, show you new ways of looking at problems, and introduce you to legal networks. What they can’t do, is teach you the nuances of legal workplaces and work cultures.

For instance, there’s a lot you might not have considered about how working or training in-house could differ from working in private practice. At face value, a role in either should be the same. However, this is far from the truth. We wanted to explore this in more detail, so we teamed up with LexisNexis and Crafty Counsel to host a virtual event exploring the differing perspectives of working in-house as opposed to in private practice.

We invited Katie Barker, Private Equity Associate at Skadden, and Chris Benn, Legal Counsel at JD Sports Fashion, to deliver a keynote talk on their experiences of working in-house and in private practice. The conversation was chaired by Flex Legal’s very own Harry Mellor, and all of the information in this article was taken from points presented in Katie and Chris’ talk.

The basic differences between in-house and private practice

To kick things off, let’s start with the basics. An in-house legal professional is employed by the organisation they give legal advice to. Say, for example, you are a lawyer working in-house for A Very Cool Company Ltd, you would advise A Very Cool Company Ltd on their presumably very cool business dealings.

Conversely, a private practice legal professional is employed by a law firm who offers their services to clients. Those law firms effectively charge out their lawyers and paralegals to different organisations, meaning those legal professionals could have multiple different clients. For instance, if you were a private practice lawyer working for A Particularly Groovy Law Firm LLP, you might spend half of your week working for Client A, and the other half working for Client B. This split can vary from workplace to workplace, however.

The cultural differences between in-house and private practice

Another big thing to consider is the nuanced cultural differences between both working environments. The way that you interact with your clients – whether that’s your direct employer or multiple external organisations – can carry a surprisingly big impact on how legal working lives can actually look. Each and every workplace will vary significantly, but there are some broad cultural commonalities that might help you decide which environment is right for you.

In-house workplace culture:

When you work in-house, you’ll typically work with the same team and see the same faces everyday. Say you’re an in-house lawyer for A Very Cool Company Ltd, you’ll live and breathe everything A Very Cool Company Ltd do. Your work will focus on the business, and take place within larger Very Cool business strategies. Think of this as there being more of a “family feel”. If your colleagues need advice and you’re in the office, they’ll probably just walk up to your desk and ask you directly! This means that interactions are typically faster paced and more “belly to belly”. If you like the thought of having a regular desk, getting to know your colleagues long-term, and working collaboratively towards shared company objectives, in-house might just suit you.

Private practice workplace culture:

On the flipside, if you’re working in private practice for A Particularly Groovy Law Firm LLP, you’ll spend less time in one team. You could move around from office to office, objective to objective, and meet a lot of different people. Your work will accordingly be more varied, and you’ll encounter new workloads and fresh challenges regularly. Whilst this does mean your work won’t always be Particularly Groovy, there are a few clear benefits to working in private practice. First of all, by dipping into more varied workloads you’ll likely pick up new skills and develop into a more well-rounded lawyer. Secondly, by moving from client to client, you’ll simply get more opportunities to meet new people and expand your network. If you like the thought of meeting a lot of people, having a good variety of work coming your way, and always solving new and interesting problems, private practice could be what you’re looking for.

Which offers better legal training - In-house or private practice?

If you’re reading this, you might be thinking about whether you’d prefer to train in-house or in private practice. The honest truth is that it’s important not to pigeon-hole yourself. Training in private practice doesn’t mean you couldn’t work in-house. What matters is the kind of training and experience you actually receive. Fortunately, it’s easier than you’d think to figure out which kind of training contract is right for you.

How do training contracts actually work?

Before we get started, let’s break down how training contracts are typically structured in case you don’t know. A legal training contract takes two years, which are broken down into placements in a number of “seats”. A “seat” is essentially just a jargon word for a different legal practice area or department, and most training contracts break these down into four six-month seats. Quite often, at least one of these will be a “secondment” where you’ll go and work with an external client company or perhaps even another law firm. The type of seats, secondments, and experience you’ll be offered will vary widely from firm to firm, company to company. So it’s important to know how to figure out which works for you.

How to figure out which training contract is right for you

A seemingly simple (but very valuable) piece of advice we would encourage you to take is: be bold enough to ask lots of questions! When applying and interviewing, it’s easy to forget how important it is to make sure the potential workplace is the right fit for you. Remember, training is a two-way street, and it’s just as important that your training opportunity is as right for you as you are for it. If you want to know about the types of seats available, the secondments you could be sent on, the diversity of work you’ll be offered, the structure of the teams, or even what kind of post-training opportunities are available, then ask! This shows initiative, and more importantly informs you in detail about the training opportunity you’re looking at.

The legal industry is all too often built on prestige and big names. We would encourage you to separate yourself from this archaic ideology. The type of experience you receive on your training contract is infinitely more important than the name of the firm or company you train at. Take a step back, and think about which training experience you would prefer to have. Would you rather spend your two-years photocopying, or would you rather get hands-on, applicable experience in a collaborative environment that saw you become a more well-rounded lawyer as a result? We think the answer is fairly obvious. Have a think about what experience you specifically would like to get, and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the work and training you’ll actually be exposed to.

Additional Resources:

  • Sign up to upcoming Virtual Lunch events - if you liked this write up, why not sign-up for an upcoming Virtual Lunch event? They’re free to attend and cover a fresh topic each month!
  • The SQE Explained - maybe the Training Contract route isn’t for you, and you’ve got your sights set on the SQE. If so, take a look at our explanatory blog post for anything you might have missed.
  • What does ‘being commercial’ mean? - there’s every chance you’ve heard about the importance of ‘being commercial’. Take a look here if you aren’t 100% sure what this means.