Planning a move in-house

21 September 2016

Last Thursday night we presented to the Queensland Young Lawyers Association at the rooftop at Sage on Ann (with the lovely backdrop of city hall above) as part of our ongoing career development series on the topic of taking your career in-house or overseas. Given I spent time in-house myself on secondment as a lawyer when I was at Allens and not to mention the fact my wife is an in-house lawyer I presented on the part of the talk that focused on moving your career in-house.

Having helped many lawyers make the move in-house during the last ten years I have been in legal recruitment there are some common questions that seem to always come up when lawyers are contemplating the move. We thought it useful to put together a summary of the talk that evening which looked to answer these common questions – what employers look for, is it for you and how to get there.

Ross will be posting part two, “Taking your career overseas” in the coming week so keep a lookout for that if overseas is where you want to take your career.

What in-house employers look for?

The sweet spot – 3-7 years PAE

Boiling it down to the simplest terms the purpose of bringing lawyers in-house is to reduce/manage legal risk, ensure regulatory compliance and manage external legal costs. The sweet spot and where we get most of our instructions is at 3-7 years’ post admission experience (PAE). This is because at this level you have had the training that will equip you to identify risk effectively across a broad range of areas. In this regard don’t go too early. While there isn’t a magic number we typically advise not to go earlier than 3 years PAE. You need good training (as you typically won’t get it in-house), the core legal skills, broad experience and ability to confidently issue spot and manage risk across the business.

Demand sectors and practice areas

The in-house market is a very small one in Brisbane (it is much bigger in Sydney and Melbourne). As a result it is easier to have an in-house career down south so if you are going to do it in Queensland be strategic about your sector. Queensland’s large in-house teams are in resources companies and EPCMs (not withstanding many have shrunk in recent years), infrastructure/property developers, Government Owned Corporations (GOCs) and utilities, Queensland government, the education sector and a few corporate head offices eg. Virgin, Flight Centre, Aurizon, BOQ etc. There are limited opportunities within financial services, IT companies, FMCG, retail and media. If these are industry sectors you want to carve an in-house career in you may very well need to move to Sydney/Melbourne for that.

The most common practice areas recruited for are influenced by the industry sectors with the greatest presence in Queensland as outlined above as well as those practice areas that provide you with good drafting and advisory skills – namely corporate, commercial, IP/IT, construction and property and projects/infrastructure. There are roles also for banking (compared to Sydney where each of the major banks have law firm sized teams it is a much smaller market) and employment lawyers but these tend to be less common. The least common areas are litigation, insurance and private client (family, estates and criminal law).

A word of warning to contentious lawyers considering a move in-house. In-house you typically become a litigation manager not a litigator anymore as that gets briefed out to panel law firms. As a result if you love litigation itself, typically an in-house move will not be the right thing for you.

What do employers look for in a CV and at interview?

You need to get across the following in your CV and at interview.

  • Transactional work history tailored to the particular role/industry;
  • Display experience across various areas of law and therefore broad experience;
  • Commerciality – if you have had commercial successes for your clients detail them;
  • A clear, concise CV showcasing a succinct written communication style;
  • Close client experience including prior in-house or secondment experience;
  • A CV which describes your skills and experience in such a way as to show you have worked closely with clients and think like a commercial advisor not just lawyer.

Is it for you? What to be prepared for:

What motivates you?

At the crux of it are you motivated by business and commercial outcomes and getting the deal done or legal reasoning, argument and detailed advice work.  We have seen many a good lawyer go in-house who is motivated by the latter only to quickly find themselves back in practice. In this regard, in-house can open up doors to commercial or management roles or governance, compliance or risk roles and move you away from the law if you are that way inclined.

One client

Your client is now one business, right there in the office with you. That is a double edged sword in that there is nowhere to hide for you to buy time to “consider your advice” but at the same time you get to see your advice implemented and followed through – something many in-house lawyers highlight as the most rewarding thing in moving in-house.

Influencing skills

Influencing and changing the day to day practices of your clients internally is an art you will have to learn. It can require a different approach and set of skills requiring you to get buy in from your internal clients. You often need to gain your internal clients trust to see they actually have a problem as compared to clients who come to see you in private practice already recognising they have a problem and ready to seek your advice.

Things to beware of:

Work/life balance?

Many lawyers come and see us seeking a move in-house in order to access a better “work/life balance”. In-house can have lifestyle benefits particularly with more regular work hours (it is unlikely you will need to cancel dinner appointments as you might have to in practice when your Partner comes into your office at 5pm with something urgent). However in-house teams are mostly small – a 4+ lawyer team is pretty big in Brisbane. Lean teams mean no secretarial support, tight budgets and an outcome focus rather than billable targets (though some in-house organisations do still use timesheets!). This can mean long hours at times and a different type of pressure as the buck stops with you. Though not always the case if work hours are your primary focus but you do want to go in-house looking at the right government department or risk/compliance role may be the best career path for you.


You need to manage your time very effectively and be self-motivated for in-house to work for you. There isn’t a billable hour target anymore and your success is not based on billable targets but your contribution to the commercial outcomes of the business. You will no longer be doing the same work in a specific area day to day and so expect to be constantly pushed out of your comfort zone and less mentoring means more self-directed learning.

Career planning

You will need to control your career and be strategic to progress your in-house career. Unlike a law firm which has a very clear career pathway and structure towards partnership at the top, there is no defined career plan for you in-house. In fact it is a narrow pyramid structure, there is only one General Counsel per organisation. While a lawyer can build a practice and therefore justify partnership in a law firm you can’t do this in-house. As a result you must be strategic in either identifying a pathway within the company that takes you outside of in-house legal perhaps as a Commercial Manager or realising you need to gain certain skills and experience from one company and take them to another company to climb the corporate ladder.

Cost centre vs fee earner

The concept of being a cost centre vs being a fee earner is an important one when moving in-house. In law firms, as a fee earner you are the business. In-house you are a cost centre even if you do pay for yourself in saved legal fees and your ability to pick up legal issues for the business before they become a problem and lawyers are engaged. You therefore need two things to have a satisfying career in-house and an enjoyable work environment – an organisation/executive that values legal and a General Counsel/Manager who is good at selling the value of legal to the business.

A move in-house can also magnify the impact of the highs and lows of the economy on your career.  It comes back to the concept of being a cost centre and to this extent you will now be at the whim of a CEO/CFO as well as the impact of company mergers or restructures. Contrast that with a private practice lawyer who has a practice/client book in a law firm and who is therefore indispensable or can pivot into other practice groups in tough economic times. Further to that point, it can be hard to move back to private practice from in-house once you have been in-house and therefore have become a generalist or don’t have a practice/following if you are more senior.


Salary is often less in-house than private practice. There are a lot of lawyers who want to go in-house and not a lot of jobs (compared to private practice) so demand/supply dictates this. The disparity tends to grow as you get more senior. Pay rises tend to be relatively modest and can often be linked via bonuses to team/company performance rather than moving up in bands as in law firms. In addition salary varies greatly according to industry, organisation size and whether it is ASX listed, location, specialisation and details of the role.

In addition to salary constraints there are also a range of benefits you may no longer be able to access. Many smaller organisations (and some surprisingly large ones) don’t provide study leave, maternity/paternity leave etc. Again this comes back to being strategic and thinking about where you are at in your career and what life stage you are at and therefore whether these things are important now/soon.

How to get there

The right practice area

Practicing in the right practice area that will open up the most doors is important so if you are in one of the demand areas outlined above or can move to a team or Partner within the firm you are in this will greatly help your chances of securing an in-house role. Alternatively if you are in the wrong area you can take a stepped approach and look to move to a law firm that will more closely align you with the demand areas.

“Demonstrated in-house experience”

If you don’t have in-house experience secondment experience will help. It gives you “demonstrated in-house experience”, allows you to “try before you buy” and they may even keep you and get you in-house!

Be proactive

You should use a variety of search avenues – recruiters, your own network, clients and even your Partner if you have a good relationship (you would be surprised at the support you might receive as you could be a great source of work in the future for your Partner). The “hidden market” plays a big part in making a move in-house. Often internal HR teams will advertise a role themselves first and General Counsel will use their network or sometimes a recruiter who doesn’t even do legal specialist recruitment will run the role because they do work for that company. So keep an eye out, register with recruiters who get in-house work and set up an email alert for Seek and LinkedIn because unlike law firms who will create roles for the right candidate you typically need to wait for a role to come up in-house.


At Peppercorn Recruitment, our Partners are both former lawyers and have a combined two decades of legal recruitment experience. We have provided frank, honest and pragmatic advice to many lawyers over their careers on matters such as negotiating salaries, drafting CVs, interview tips and tricks and of course, changing jobs.

We hope you find this a useful point of reference in your career planning, but should you wish to have a confidential discussion about how we can help, please contact either Peter or Ross on 07 3031 3625. We’re happy to help!

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