Ayla Skene, Council member for new lawyers explains what impact her time working in-house had on her career and skill set.
Since leaving university I have worked for two public sector organisations and one law firm. Each role has been very different. It is remarkable in that they have all broadly had the same job title, but is testament to how varied a legal career can be.
I trained with a local authority, which had a big enough in-house team to allow a good degree of specialisation. The team were fantastic to work with and I had some terrific mentors. Afterwards I switched into more of a “general counsel” role with an economic development agency, where I had exposure to some really exciting projects close to my heart, as the organisation was based in the area where I grew up and was having a visibly positive impact upon the region.
Jump forward to today, and I have now been with Pinsent Masons for a year and a half, specialising in EU law. The draw of the private sector was primarily due to the opportunity to specialise in this area (which I still feel geekily passionate about, despite the tumultuous landscape!) - and it being an international firm with multiple offices, with the chance to potentially relocate and travel. I am now based in London and advise on State aid, competition law, procurement and general EU law.
Looking to my time in-house, several observations spring to mind.
I have found that when you work in-house, it is really important to actively demonstrate your value and “sell” your team; it can be much easier to prove your worth in a firm.
It means being proactive in pushing ideas that enhance the organisation, which as a lawyer will take you out of your comfort zone. While time recording is the bane of the private sector lawyer’s existence, I now see the benefit of adopting it in-house too as it does give you a tangible record to point to in terms of how you spend your time and what value you add.
The most important way to sell your team though, is to invest time in building good relationships. People should not be reticent about contacting you before something mushrooms into a problem. If you are in-house in a small legal team, you may find that you have a high degree of responsibility at a relatively junior stage, including oversight of a budget. I think this is great, as it develops your commercial acumen but you will need to develop skills beyond just legal analysis pretty quickly.
Working in-house definitely makes you feel like you are really part of a team and you become personally invested in projects; I miss being involved from the inception meeting to seeing the project take off with my own eyes. While I do believe you need more breadth of legal knowledge to succeed in-house, it doesn’t mean you must be an absolute generalist. There are organisations where you can still specialise to a degree. While I did find the hours more regular in my early roles, this depended on the time of year and deadlines; it is a myth that those in the public sector work less hard, especially given efficiency savings over the last few years. No two days in my last role were ever the same.
One of the biggest benefits of working in a large law firm is the breadth of expertise and resource you can draw upon. The private sector is great for those who are passionate about the technical aspects of the law, particularly given the degree of specialism in big organisations. I think the degree of specialism also helps you build confidence at a junior stage quite quickly, as you see many recurring problems. There are also a huge variety of clients when working in a large firm.
I would not discourage anyone from working either in-house or private practice. The right choice for you depends on your personality, skillset and what you want from your career. I think that it is possible to switch from one area to another and you should never be reticent about exploring all options until you find one which is right for you.