The requirements from businesses for in-house counsel has increased in recent years. Steady growth in the performance of the economy since the recession has seen a large increase in the demand for in-house counsel, particularly in SMEs. This trend is currently projected to continue. The Law Society’s data states that the number of solicitors working in-house is still increasing, a lot more than those in private practice, and is predicted to reach 35% of the profession by the year 2020.
Aside from economic success, there are other influences at play here. Seeking external legal services is expensive, which has caused an increase in organisations hiring in-house counsel. Despite private law firms’ efforts to combat this by offering different fee structures, they have found it difficult to compete against an in-house legal function that has a capped cost, and a fully integrated member of the team. There is a view that in-house can often offer better value for money, and a more pragmatic commercial approach in comparison to the more specialised, risk-sensitive advice on offer from private practice law firms.
The journey of in-house counsel
Amongst the private practice population, there is a general misconception about the right time to make the move in-house. Newly qualified candidates are often told upon qualifying that they need to remain in private practice for five or six years before moving in-house. Although private practice law firms can offer high-quality experience and expertise, the typical level that in-house organisations will be looking to hire at is actually between two and seven years PQE, with an increasing trend towards taking on staff at lower levels of PQE.
This enables businesses to give their lawyers more commercial exposure at an earlier stage in their career, which is something that private practices can’t always offer to candidates. Employees entering an in-house organisation at a lower level will typically be more attuned to the acceptable levels of risk and pragmatism within a business, which goes against the dynamic of more risk-averse private practice advice.
As such, the general career path we would see in-house is Legal Counsel (0 to 5 years PQE), Senior Legal Counsel (5 to 7+ years PQE) Head of Department/Region, Deputy General Counsel and then General Counsel. The relevance of PQE levels will fall away once a lawyer gets beyond around seven years in PQE, with in-house experience and the spectrum of that experience being more of a factor as a candidate’s career progresses.
The more senior you are, the wider it is anticipated your skill set will be, particularly within SME’s in industry and commerce. Those lawyers who have stayed in private practice and specialised beyond seven years PQE, may struggle to make an in-house move after that time. Especially when they have not had any secondments and are being forced to compete with those lawyers that made an in-house move earlier in their careers, and have demonstrable in-house experience.
Finally, the in-house as a whole is shaped like a pyramid – the further you progress in-house in terms of seniority, the fewer roles there are. It is often the case that organisations will prefer to promote from within at senior levels (with a great emphasis being placed on succession planning within in- house legal teams). The key is to get in early and broaden your skill set as much as you can.
How the in-house counsel role has developed
There has been a misconception about what being an in-house counsel involves. An in-house counsel was previously viewed as a profession that required less working hours and offered a better work-life balance. However, whilst this is still typically the case, working days typically between 9 am to 6/7 pm, it remains an intense working environment, as an in-house counsel is often the sole legal source for numerous internal clients.
The key skills and experience you should be looking for
When looking for in-house counsel, it is important to consider the level of role you are hiring for, alongside the size and scale of the business, as this will directly affect the type of professional you should be looking for to fill your vacancy.
There will still be a requirement for specialist lawyers from larger organisations with distinct legal teams. However, in smaller SMEs where candidates are required to manage more than one legal specialism, organisations should be looking for lawyers with a broad skill set who are able to understand legal issues holistically. In-house experience is likely to provide a wider skill set, so candidates with previous in-house experience will appeal to hiring managers.
At a more junior level, where candidates have not had the career longevity to pick up a wide-ranging skill set, hiring managers should be looking for candidates with enthusiasm and drive to get involved with a multitude of different areas. Candidates who are focused on specialising may not be the correct fit for the varied workload of the in-house environment.
Two of the most important attributes that you should be looking for in an in-house counsel are empathy and communication. An in-house lawyer will come into contact with stakeholders at varying levels of seniority, from vastly differing backgrounds, but this isn’t always the case in private practice law firms. A lawyer who can communicate well and adopt an adaptable approach with those they are working with, is likely to succeed in the in-house environment. As the in-house lawyer you will be coming into contact with a large spectrum of internal stakeholders and knowing the right way to deliver your message, based on who you are advising in the business, is key.
Attracting top in-house counsel
In order to attract top in-house counsel to your business, you will need to stand apart from your competition. Despite a real evolution in the array of “extras” being offered by employment, the package on offer remains central to successful recruitment in the in-house market. We are now operating in a market where there are NQ’s employed by U.S. private practice firms on starting salaries equivalent to over £120,000 per annum (who are also eligible for performance-based bonuses). This could feasibly be a salary for an in-house Head of Legal within some SME’s. Whilst there is no suggestion that the in-house market should seek to compete with remuneration at this level, there is a need to increase salaries at all levels, and particularly the junior to mid-level end of the market. This is to allow candidates to make the move in-house, but understandably, some are simply unable to take a dramatic drop in salary.
As referred to above, in addition to a strong financial package, top talent will be looking for good quality work and commercial exposure. Remuneration isn’t everything, with more candidates enquiring about flexible working arrangements before salary expectations. A clear career path and opportunities for development are key. However, a combination of offering competitive packages, as well as strong incentives with the above, can be used to help attract top talent in today’s market.
Assessing skills during an interview
The in-house environment is best for practical, hands-on lawyers. Teamed with their excellent technical knowledge, in-house counsel need to be able to get involved with commercial projects. During the interview, hiring managers should be looking to obtain demonstrable experience of the candidate’s ability to fulfil the role, and the best way to do this is through competency-based questioning. This will allow the candidate the opportunity to give evidence on their capability of undertaking the role in question. It is not always about the size of the deals which the candidate has worked on, but their actual involvement.
If you are looking for help with how to properly assess skills during the interview stage why not download our guide, ‘Assessing candidates’ skills in job interviews’ today. This guide can provide you with the tools you need to assess a candidate’s abilities. Alternatively, if you are looking to hire top talent within the legal sector get in touch with one of our specialist recruitment consultants.
Managing Consultant, Michael Page Legal
T: 020 7269 2358