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In-house lawyers without private practice experience ‘will not compare’, says recruiter

For those considering a move in-house, this legal recruiter recommended having at least four years of private practice experience first — otherwise, they “will not compare on paper” for top jobs.

user iconLauren Croft 13 June 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 how much, if any, private experience practice they need to have.

While in-house teams 15 to 20 years ago were quite small, Ms Naiman said that over the last decade, in-house legal teams have grown — and particularly within the commercial and transactional practice areas.

“The areas that we get most requests for tend to be in straight corporate commercial. And again, depending on the size of the organisations and the banks, for example, might ask for more specialised skill sets across funds or merger acquisition. Obviously, bank and finance, our banks have large legal teams. There’s a solid requirement for that, generally, in the transactional areas.


“I do say to candidates, if you want a long career in-house, your best skill set is in that transactional space, whatever that transactional space is. We get a lot of requests for lawyers to go to work for some of the medium and larger size developers who need to have that expertise in the property space. Litigators, trickier, not impossible, but we do find it’s a little bit harder. If you’ve got a banking litigation or insolvency background, the banks might be a good place for you,” she explained.

“With insurance as a skill set, we find that, generally speaking, the in-house world is somewhat limited to being in the claim’s teams of the larger insurers. And if you want to work in the office of general counsel of any of the larger insurers, the skill set there is more commercial. But there’s certainly scope for just about everyone. I think once you start getting to some of the more niche areas like environment planning, for example, or admin law, your path might be limited.”

For those considering a move in-house, however, Ms Naiman said that while she has seen lawyers go straight from law school to in-house roles, she recommends having private practice experience first.

“Those candidates that get an opportunity to go straight into in-house roles as graduates, and we certainly do see some of those, my advice to them is always at the two-year mark, leave and go and continue to develop your black letter expertise in a well-regarded law firm. Because what tends to happen is that when those people get to the 10 PQE mark, they will always be compared to those that have gone through the private practice path, particularly in top-tier environments,” she added.

“And they will not compare on paper because when people go to recruit tenure lawyers, what they’re looking for is a really sharp and very precise expertise in a particular area gained by bum on seat for a particular period of time under a partner that specialises in that area. And you can’t get around that.”

Because of this, Ms Naiman said that “realistically”, lawyers should have four years of experience before pursuing in-house roles.

“At two years, a lot of people have only just finished rotations. If you’ve gone to one of the larger firms, you’re really not an expert in anything. You’ve started to gain a skill set; you’ve started to work out how the commercial world works. When you go in-house, the expectations of the business are that the answers to things,” she said.

“And our experience is at two-year marks, you don’t really know the answers to many things. You might know the answers to some things. So, at the four-year mark with that just sub-senior associate level, that’s really the point at which I think the in-house world sees some real value and believes that black letter skill set has been nurtured enough that they can now be of use to an in-house team.

“We do get to one- and two-year lawyers saying, ‘I feel like I’ve done my dash now and want to go in-house’. Not to say that those roles don’t exist; they’re not non-existent, there aren’t a lot of them around. But again, I say to those people, if you’ve only had one year or two years of experience, when you are going for that general counsel role at 15 years PQE, your CV will be lined up with the 10 other people that have spent five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years at a top-tier firm and you will not compare.”

In addition, those looking to move in-house should be looking to spend time on a secondment with a client if the opportunity presents itself, Ms Naiman outlined.

“[This] really opens you up straight away to that in-house life, what is it? What are the pressures? What are the joys? You really get a very good picture of what that might look like. Second of all, what I say to people is you need to be specialist but not so specialist that you are an expert in one subset of one particular area. So, one of the things that I think is prized in the in-house world is certainly being a specialist but also being able to turn your hand to other related areas.

“If your specialty becomes just capital markets, debt capital markets, and that’s it, your opportunity to go in-house might be a little bit more limited than if you had a slightly broader skill set across corporate or banking, let’s say. I’m not suggesting you get a generalist background, but I’m suggesting that within your area of skills that you pick a couple of roads that you’re going to go down, a couple of skill sets you’re going to particularly develop, but also be open to the idea that you might really be thrown in everything,” she added.

“And that can both be the pitfall and the joy of going in-house. So those two development pieces, they’re the ones that I’d look out for people wanting to go in-house.”

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