What is the difference between private practice and in-house?

Throughout my journey, one discussion which often popped up was the difference between practicing privately or practicing as an in-house lawyer. But what exactly are these concepts? Private practice essentially refers to working in a law firm (e.g. Freshfields, Clifford Chance etc…). The usual route involves securing a Training Contract and qualifying in a particular department.  An in-house lawyer essentially means someone who is practicing law in the legal department of a particular organisation (e.g. Apple, Goldman Sachs, Chevron etc…)

In this article, I will speak about some differences in the work environment and variety of work between private practice and in-house, based on my experiences. The second part of this article is a short Q&A with Romella Manning-Brown. Romella previously worked as a lawyer at Slaughter and May and she is currently a Senior Counsel at Chevron. For this reason, Romella will answer questions which aim to provide a brief insight into the differences between private practice and in-house.

Work environment

Throughout my experiences at law firms, perhaps the most obvious aspect of the offices was the large size of departments. This was mainly because law firms have a structure of Trainee-Associate-Partner which inevitably means an increase in the number of legal employees. Whilst some may think that having large departments can cause communication issues, I actually found that the large nature of the departments was the most useful tool for personal and professional development. This is because it provides an opportunity to network and build relationships with more people. This was particularly important for me on the Vacation Scheme because there was always someone available to answer any questions that I had. I also observed various lawyers asking other lawyers for help which highlighted the supportive culture that can arise from having large departments.

From experience, the situation was slightly different as an in-house lawyer. The legal department was smaller and understandably so. However, this presented its own unique advantages. For instance, as the teams are smaller, the junior lawyers and interns receive more attention and support from the senior lawyers. Although junior lawyers in private practice also receive support from senior lawyers, this support will not be the same as in-house lawyers. This is because, in-house junior lawyers are likely to receive more responsibility than trainees. This means that more support is required to be given to in-house lawyers in order to manage that responsibility and ensure that they are not overwhelmed by novel complex matters.

Variety of work

During my experiences in private practice, I noticed that there was an opportunity to work on a variety of matters due to the range of clients the law firms had. As no client matter will ever be the same as another, there is a great opportunity to learn new skills and get exposure to different types of challenges and experiences. This exposure to variety would be experienced heavily on the Training Contract as trainees get the chance to sit in different departments (e.g. 8 seat TC at Freshfields). However, this ability to work on different matters becomes slightly limited upon qualification. This is because qualification means specialising in one particular field of work. For instance, it is unlikely that a lawyer in Dispute Resolution will be heavily involved in Mergers and Acquisitions unless there is litigation involved. Despite this, there are still great opportunities to experience new challenges because as previously stated, no client matter will be identical to another.

On the other hand, in-house lawyers will only have one client (the organisation they work for). As in-house lawyers will spend almost all of their time working with this client, they will develop a better understanding of the client, which can help them assess the legal risks facing the company much more accurately. Furthermore, in-house lawyers will often work on a variety of matters for that client. This means that an in-house lawyer could find themselves working on either an acquisition or a litigation matter. This provides an in-house lawyer with a breadth of knowledge despite often being generalists.

Q&A with Romella Manning-Brown

What made you move from private practice to in-house?

Overall, I get to practice a greater breadth of employment law in-house compared to in private practice.  In private practice there were many years where I became the “go to” person for a particular kind of work if I happened to be working on something similar.  This meant that there were long periods without variety of work type.  In-house also has a number of paths to promotion and career advancement whereas private practice, the options are generally limited to fee-earner, partner or PSL.  Finally, there tends to be greater flexibility around unconventional working patterns in-house.

What are the main differences between in-house and private practice?

There are so many!  I would say one of the differences that I love is that you are closer to the business and therefore have a better appreciation of your clients’ areas of concern and appetite for risk. 

Do you need different skills as an in-house lawyer?

Yes, you need to be able to translate technical legal advice into immediate, digestible and practical applicable guidance.

Do you think having experience in private practice first is necessary to be successful as an in-house lawyer?

Whilst helpful, especially when instructing external counsel, it is not absolutely necessary.

What advice would you give to lawyers/students who are thinking of working in-house?

  1. Try to get secondment experience first if at all possible.
  2. Think about the kind of in-house environment you’re interested in as they can be wildly different: tech; financial services; FMCG; energy; professional services; government or NGOs etc.  Also consider whether you might wish to work in the small UK office of a large global organisation headquartered in another country or in the global hub/HQ etc.
  3. Consider compatibility with the corporate culture and values.

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