It’s a question we are often asked by Partners who head up commercial contracts teams – how do we stop our best commercial lawyers making the move in-house? Meanwhile, in-house legal teams are looking to expand their commercial expertise and are able to offer compelling packages.
The honest answer is that if somebody has their heart set on making the switch out of practice, then it can be difficult to stop this train of thought. This is compounded by the fact that strong commercial lawyers remain in demand and there is a shortage of quality candidates - so much so that we are seeing more in-house organisations hiring lawyers who don’t have pure commercial contracts experience (i.e. commercial litigators are being recruited and retrained).
Why are lawyers looking to move in-house?
Some common perceptions of a move in-house include:
- Better work/life balance and flexibility
- Being closer to the commercial rationale behind decisions and strategies
- Move away from targets/time recording
- Chance to be involved in big-ticket projects from inception to completion
- Better pay and benefits
The list is not exhaustive and, of course, every in-house role differs massively. There are opportunities that can tick a lot of those boxes but equally, we speak with in-house lawyers who work hours just as long as they did in practice.
Some of the factors can’t be addressed (for example moving away from chargeable hours/time recording) but if you are a Commercial Partner reading this checklist then it’s worth being aware of some of these key drivers. Look into anything you can do now to pre-empt any of these issues coming to the forefront within your team.
We strongly recommend that you maintain an open dialogue with your commercial lawyers on a regular basis about their career path within your firm, their aspirations and any concerns that they have. On both sides of the fence, hiring managers need to appreciate the motivations of lawyers and be able to provide a working environment which meets their needs.
A large number of law firms now encourage a more agile approach to work. This can include working part-time, allowing staff to work from home where needed and just generally creating a culture of trust, where lawyers don’t feel like they have to stay in the office late if they have got their work done.
Being part of a team that has a ‘grown-up’ approach to working can ensure that your lawyers don’t need to be thinking about other roles that might give them a better work/life balance.
Let your team know that this flexibility is encouraged. Could your firm look at implementing an official HR policy around agile working so that all staff know where they stand?
Talk about their career development and aspirations
Finding out what they are primarily motivated by can be an invaluable tool for you. If they are motivated by career progression, then talk them through what the next 3-5 years could look like if they stayed in your team.
If they are motivated by earning potential, can you talk them through pay brackets and what they could earn if they continue on an upward trajectory in your team?
A common mistake is that quite often these conversations are left to official appraisals and they are not happening as regularly as they should. A lot can happen in the 6/12 months between appraisals and by then it could be too late if that lawyer has started to question their future in the team.
Simple conversations around future prospects and pay can help them visualise a future within your team and what they can strive towards. This can be very motivating and with an exciting future ahead, they may not feel the need to look at the market.
Recruitment of other lawyers
There are two key reasons why you should keep a constant eye on potential recruits: (1) succession planning if your existing lawyers do move on and (2) having a well-stocked team alleviates the pressure from other fee-earners and allows them to achieve a good work/life balance.
A gripe from a lot of commercial lawyers that we speak with is that they are quite over-stretched and their teams struggle without additional resource.
If a mid-level lawyer in your team were to resign tomorrow, what position would this leave your team in? Remember – there is a shortage of good commercial lawyers looking at the market and most would only have their heads turned by a potential move in-house!
Having flexibility on your recruitment needs is also important. If you are waiting for the perfect five-year PQE commercial solicitor to become available, then you could be waiting for some time which in turn keeps your other lawyers stretched and overworked.
Be open-minded about the background and PQE of a candidate. We have seen firms compromise by recruiting junior solicitors who they can train up and we have also seen the big law firms recruit hidden gems from more regional law firms who want to make the step up.
Variety of work
Private practice teams are in a great position in that they will get a genuine mix of instructions from a range of clients. This can be different from some in-house positions where that variety can be missing.
Commercial Partners should use this to their advantage, allowing their lawyers to have a truly diverse caseload of work where possible.
This variety can be very important to junior lawyers who do not want to pigeonhole themselves into a certain area or type of work too early in their career. It can be easy to fall into the trap of giving your junior lawyers the same types of contracts because they are good at churning them out but there will come a point where they find this unfulfilling. Give them a chance and start introducing some of the more complex work.
Of course, as lawyers develop, they may have a natural leaning towards a particular type of commercial work. Again, this ties into the importance of maintaining that open dialogue with your team and having a clear understanding about the type of work they want to be undertaking.
Commercial Partners will always face the challenge of their staff being attracted by a potential in-house move. Whilst you might resign yourself to this apparent inevitability, there a plenty of examples of lawyers who have not made this switch and that’s because they can see the future that they want within their law firm.
So have a conversation with your commercial lawyers today around their motivations and career plans. Let them know that their future is bright within your team.
If you would like to discuss these challenges further contact Conor Farrell, Manager at Michael Page Legal for a confidential discussion.
T: 0121 634 8800