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In-house is the ‘perfect life for the right lawyer’

With a global economic downturn on the horizon, in-house life isn’t without its challenges, according to this recruiter, who opines that life in corporate legal can be amazing — if one is genuinely suited for it.

user iconLauren Croft 18 May 2023 Corporate Counsel
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Elvira Naiman is the managing partner of legal recruitment firm Naiman Clarke. Speaking recently on an episode of The Lawyers Weekly Show, produced in partnership with Naiman Clarke, Ms Naiman outlined how and when lawyers in private practice should consider moving in-house and reflected on the state of affairs in the current market.

While in-house teams 15 to 20 years ago were quite small, Ms Naiman said that over the last decade, she’s seen a number of interesting trends.

“One is that the in-house teams have grown. I think one of the reasons for that has been because the cost of legal services has increased. I think particularly the larger organisations that have been spending a lot of money on external legal providers have found some sense in bringing some of those skills in-house. And as such, they have grown some of those more specialised teams, and we’ve certainly seen real uplift in the in-house space over that period of time,” she explained.


“I think what’s come with that as a secondary trend has probably been a change to what in-house existence used to be like. Traditionally when we spoke to people, the move to in-house had two prongs to it. One was, well, I want to be closer to the business and I want to have more of a say in some of the decision making that goes on. And the second was always this understanding that in-house life was not necessarily easier but perhaps less intense.

“You weren’t billing anyone in six-minute intervals. There was a sense that it was not just commercial and closer to the business, but that it was a bit more work/life balance, a bit more balanced in terms of the intensity.”

With the growth of these in-house teams — and with them now being largely made up of senior lawyers — the expectations have changed slightly, which Ms Naiman said has consequently changed the intensity of in-house work.

“We’re no longer seeing people say, ‘Well, I’m moving in-house because I think my life is going to be easier.’ That doesn’t seem to be the reason, and I think, in truth, that life is not easier. So, I think that certainly has been some real changes that we’ve seen,” she said.

“And also, weirdly with that. We’ve also seen a lot more traffic of people coming back from in-house, which we traditionally weren’t really seeing a lot of. Once you’ve got in-house, that’s where you stay. And I think it isn’t necessarily the panacea that people think that it might be.”

Particularly post-pandemic, the stresses around in-house life can be significant, especially when working with non-lawyers and other internal and external stakeholders.

“One of the things we certainly hear is, ‘I’m having pressure put on by my sales team to do X, Y, Z. Don’t feel comfortable about it’. We hear that enough that it’s certainly a trend. I think also the expectation of the volume of work that a lawyer doing their job well can do. And I think in some parts, COVID did exacerbate that because as we all sat at home, it’s very hard to gauge how busy someone is unless you are walking into their office and there [are] piles of files, and they look like there’s a lot on,” Ms Naiman added.

“So, I do think that the life of those lawyers perhaps was a little bit harder than those in private practice, because in private practice, more often than not, there’ll be someone that’s very similar in your skill set and your experience level that you can say, ‘Look, need some help with this.’ Or there’s a junior that you can throw something to.”

In terms of how these trends are likely to change moving forward, Ms Naiman said that it would be hard to say, particularly in the backdrop of a potential recession.

“In nearly all organisations, the legal team is not producing income, obviously. So they are a cost deficit. They’re not revenue generating. So it’ll be interesting to see how some of the multinationals, with some of the pressure that might be put to bear from the US and Europe and elsewhere, what that might mean in terms of some cost-cutting. And so invariably by cutting your in-house team, you are cutting direct revenue, and then your external legal expenses become variable that you don’t need to necessarily count for today,” she said.

“So I wouldn’t be surprised if the globe continues to take a downward spiral economically that we might see some of that cost-cutting in some of the larger organisations. I think just as in private practice where certainly through COVID, our experience with lawyers was that they were saying they were wearing many more hats than they’ve had to before, life was more complex and more difficult. I think that the pressure put on the in-house lawyers will continue to be quite intense because revenue is king, share price is king.”

Despite a potential global economic downturn, however, Ms Naiman said moving in-house remains a vocationally rewarding career pathway for lawyers — and that “in-house is the perfect life for the right lawyer”.

“I would genuinely say there’s probably only about 20 per cent of the market of lawyers that is genuinely suited for an in-house life. I think the fast pace, having to pivot between stakeholders can really take its toll unless you’re someone that is very good at that and excited about that.

“I think an in-house existence can be very rewarding for someone who can pivot, who’s very commercial, who really wants to get into the nuts and bolts of the business and wants to perhaps have a legal career that’s not a hundred per cent being a lawyer. Because I think you are often then having to be surrounded by people across marketing and operations and finance. And I think it does give you a broader business worldview. Salaries can be good, the conditions can be good, the bonuses can be amazing, but it’s not the right world for everyone,” she added.

“I think the key message is: know yourself. If you’re someone that likes to sit with a matter and really work that matter hard for a period of time, and I know a lot of lawyers really love that deep dive, in-house may not be for you. That’s really the message. If you’re the right person, you’ll love in-house, and in-house will love you, and you’ll have a very successful, long and rewarding career in the in-house world.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Elvira Naiman, click below:

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