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There and back again: what it’s like moving from in-house to private practice

For any in-house lawyers considering a move to private practice, a key lesson is to specialise in something – and not be afraid of timesheets, as Matt Jones of EIP explains from first-hand experience

It's a common question from one lawyer to another; whether in articles, online messages and discussion boards, or around the water cooler – ‘what's it like moving from private practice to in-house?’ Indeed, many lawyers in private practice have been tempted to make the switch. Perhaps they're disillusioned with the greasy pole to partnership; perhaps they just want a change of scenery and pace. But many make the move in-house successfully. 

One thing that's not so often talked about, though, is what about going back the other way? What about going from in-house to private practice? 

Lots of people will be tempted to answer that question rather tersely, and negatively, along the lines of the following:

"Once you go in-house, you'll never get back into private practice"; and

"Oh, and even if you do, you'll never go back into private practice as a partner." 

Well, speaking as someone who went in-house from private practice as an associate, and then went back into private practice less than two and a half years later as a partner, I'm living proof that that's very much not the case. And, by the way, if I can do it, others certainly can.   

So, if you're an in-house lawyer, how might you go about making the journey to (or back to) private practice? And, if you've never been in private practice before, or if it's been a while, what will it be like when you get there? 

I'm lucky enough to have worked in-house at two large multinational organisations (one pharma company and one IT company), and still have several friends in-house at various places, so, if I may, allow me to share my limited insights.

You know what makes clients tick

This is invaluable. In private practice, lawyers always value knowledge of their clients. As an in-house lawyer (or soon-to-be-former in-house lawyer), you have a perspective that money just can't buy. You know about the internal politics between the legal function and other functions within the business (more of that later), you know what goes on behind the scenes with respect to approval of invoices, and you know the types of services and, frankly, attitudes that companies want and need from their external lawyers. If considering moving into private practice, this knowledge should be brought to the foreground in any CV, business plan and/or interview. Your knowledge and perspectives will be eagerly sought after. 

Shrinking practice areas, shrinking geography

In-house, you're probably used to dealing with a relatively wide range of practice areas across a wide geographical area. Depending on the size of your legal team and organisation as a whole, even if ostensibly you are, say, a corporate lawyer, you might find yourself on a day-to-day basis dabbling in areas such as employment, data protection, competition, and litigation. Also, you will probably be used to instructing local counsel in multiple jurisdictions, should knotty issues arise in whichever country it is that your company might have a business presence. 

When going into private practice, your practice area will almost certainly have to narrow to a much finer focus. You will be expected to work chiefly in one practice area, in one department, and certainly limited to your country of qualification. 

This is all somewhat double edged. What it does mean is that, in-house, if you ever want to hope to make the move into private practice, you have to make sure that you're a specialist in something. Try not to become too much of a jack-of-all-trades. Even if you have to deal with multiple practice areas across multiple jurisdictions, make sure that you continue to immerse yourself as much as possible in your preferred practice area in the jurisdiction of your qualification. Naturally, this is valuable to your employers in-house as well; aside from anything else, it means that they and you will not have so frequently to instruct external counsel in relation to your chosen speciality. One short-cut is to learn from your external counsel ... until you think you can surpass them. With luck, one day, you just might. 

One good part is that, in the course of being an in-house lawyer, you should have built up a vast network of foreign local counsel upon whom you can call in private practice, should the need arise. In fact, after a move into private practice, you could find yourself being bombarded by your colleagues (and clients) for recommendations for a tax lawyer in Japan, or a commercial litigator in Brazil. Use those contacts and connections to the fullest, and you will also build up a well of favours to be returned, both by the people in your new firm to whom you give valuable tips, and by the foreign lawyers to whom you have referred them. 

Increased industry coverage

In contrast to the above, your industry coverage will almost certainly increase when you move into private practice. In-house, you will have been used to one client, in one industry, with all of the attendant issues relevant to that industry and that industry only. If you're in the pharmaceutical industry in-house, then you'll know an awful lot about pharmaceutical regulation, but your knowledge of standardisation issues in the telecoms sector might be sorely lacking. You're going to have to bridge those knowledge gaps very quickly if and when you move into private practice and, before that, convince your new employers (or partners) that you can bridge those gaps effectively. So, if you are seriously thinking about moving into private practice, you have to get wise to legal (and regulatory) issues outside the bubble of your own commercial/technology sector. 

You're not the boss of me

When I first moved in-house, I was daunted by the prospect of telling 20-year qualified law firm partners and/or 30-year experienced QCs what to do. Not to worry, I got used to it pretty quickly. However, going the other way was (and is) a jolt back to earth. All of a sudden, in private practice those partners are your seniors (or, just as jarring, your opposite numbers) and those QCs are once again treating you with the disdain that they think you deserve. There's no real advice here; you just have to suck it up and realise your place in the world. Just be ready for how other people might and will perceive the change in relationships and account for that in your own attitudes as appropriate. 

The party's over

There is another area in which you may find yourself crashing back down to Earth. You will, probably, be thoroughly accustomed to going to external seminars, conferences, legal awards ceremonies, etc., and finding yourself being wooed and flattered by all sorts of smiling individuals from private practice, eagerly pressing business cards into your hands and offering their own seminars, workshops and, of course, legal services. Well, that attention will turn off like a light switch as soon as people realise you're no longer a potential client, but rather another member of the competition. 

I suppose the real lesson here is just, once you move back into private practice, not to be one of those annoying business card merchants yourself. Good work attracts its own client base, like moths to a flame. There's nothing wrong with handing out the occasional business card at an awards ceremony or seminar if you feel the situation warrants it of course, but nobody likes an ambulance chaser.

Timesheets – they suck, right?

This is the difference I suppose many of you were expecting. But, in reality, it's not that big a deal. In fact, it's probably the opposite of what you might expect. If you're in-house, one thing that probably makes you feel smug compared to your private practice counterparts is that you don't have to do timesheets. And yes, timesheets can be a pain. But the fact is that – and most of you in-house will know this already – in many companies the legal function is seen as something of a money sink. Some people (not in either of my former companies, I'm happy to say) might even refer to the legal function as the ‘business prevention unit’. You might find yourself in-house frequently being asked to justify your budget, your pay, and seemingly your very existence. This may involve complex and creative ways of assessing the legal function's (and your) value. 

By contrast, in private practice, the situation, while a pain in terms of recording your time day by day, is philosophically very simple: you are worth what you bill. OK, there is more to it than that, certainly as a partner: you are also worth the clients and work that you bring in for the firm more widely, the good publicity you generate for the firm, your maintenance of client relationships, your management and admin time, etc. But, at the end of the day, if someone wants to put a dollar or pound value on you (and, trust me, they do), it's at its core a fairly simple multiplication: your hours times your charge-out rate. So, don't be afraid of timesheets. In fact, embrace them for the useful tool of value determination that they are. 

Matt Jones is a partner at IP law firm EIP in London.  

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