How to move from in-house legal to a law firm

Author Irini Panagiotopoulou
April 6, 2023

The UK legal landscape, molded by societal and technological innovations, is dynamic, ever-changing and unpredictable. It’s no surprise that many lawyers find themselves wanting to switch things up; whether it’s to explore new opportunities or take on new challenges. The traditional route of this exploration for many years meant moving from private practice to an in-house legal career and pursuing in-house positions like Head of Legal, Legal Counsel or General Counsel, but what’s interesting is that more and more lawyers choose to do the opposite.

Five top tips on how to move from your in-house role to a law firm

If you’ve decided that a move to private practice is the right choice for your next role, the next step is to start planning your transition. Here are some tips to help you make the move successfully into your new role.

As an in-house lawyer, you have the advantage of an international, wider network. Carry the relationships you have already created, attend industry events, reach out to colleagues, gain market insights from agencies and build new connections with potential clients and employers to increase your following.

Consider your target law firms

Find the connection between the in-house industry focus you work in and the firm you want to go to. Research their client profiles, their practice expertise and their niche sectors and identify how these fit with your own specialisation and career path. Look for the right firm with the right platform to attract your clients.

You have unique insights on the internal politics and behind-the-scenes processes between the legal function and other functions within a business. Focus on your expertise in legal areas that are in demand in private practice, highlight relevant work experiences, your PQE and skills and bring to the forefront of your CV any business development or client management exposure you’ve had.

Your knowledge on how businesses operate from top to bottom and the pressures you’ve sustained as an in-house counsel of a management team are invaluable. Don’t underestimate this element of your legal expertise, because you have a distinctive commercial acumen many private practice lawyers do not.

Be prepared and learn how to start at the bottom

Law firm environments can be competitive and it may take time to find the right opportunity. The management might be more rigid and you may have to be prepared to potentially start at a more junior level, while also learning how to interact with the different stakeholders until you reach the top.

Overall and despite misconceptions, moving from in-house to private practice can be an excellent career move for lawyers. It can offer specialisation, wider clientele, greater decision-making over career progression and higher financial compensation with moving to billable hours.

It’s also not as impossible as you might think. By building a following, tailoring your CV and receiving guidance on which law firms to target, how to gain business development exposure and how to be resilient, you can take your legal career to the next level.

Why make the move from in-house to a law firm?

One of the most common reasons is a desire to specialise. As an in-house lawyer, you’re the “jack of all trades” for one business, dealing with company-wide legal issues that may or may not fall within your practice area. But when working in private practice, you have the ability to become an expert and have a finer focus in one jurisdiction, one legal department and one practice area, while still keeping a wider client base.

Another appealing reason for the private practice transition, is the ability to gain control over your career progression. In-house roles tend to have a rigid and structured path to progression, whereas private practice offers more flexible and greater opportunities to create a unique path, increase your following, build relationships and become a partner.

Last but definitely not least, private practice offers a greater financial reward. Your product and your work is the absolute focus of the firm, rather than a support function of the business. You are worth what you bill and time sheets, value determination and business development initiatives offer higher earning potential than an in-house fixed-salaried position.

What is the difference between an in-house lawyer and private practice lawyer?

A private practice lawyer typically works for clients of law firms, providing legal services to the client and resolving the legal issue at hand. They may work on a variety of cases and clients, and their main goal is to offer the best legal advice and representation possible to their clients.

On the other hand, an in-house counsel works for a company or business with a primary focus on providing legal advice and support to the business. The role is always centred around business needs and objectives, requiring a deep understanding of the company’s goals and the industry in which it operates. In-house counsels are expected to be proactive and excellent communicators, with high management skills to interact and negotiate with both internal and external stakeholders. They need to always be able to be as accurate as possible with the legal advice they give – and at the same time – present it in a way that is easy to understand for non-lawyers.

Do private practice lawyers work more hours?

It’s worth noting that work-life balance can vary between different law firms and in-house roles, so generalising is difficult. The general consensus is that in-house lawyers have more structured working hours and can predict their legal involvement more accurately than in private practice, but it is still not a 9-5 job. They may still be required to work outside of regular business hours, especially when the company is dealing with a legal issue or transaction. In contrast, there are also private practice firms that have very low target hours (1000-1200) or no billable target hours at all. Ultimately, it depends on the specific job, employer and practice area. 

What is the best way to find a job at a law firm?

Many successful candidates would likely agree that legal recruitment agencies offer the best route to finding a job in today’s market.

Firstly, working with an agency like Taylor Root is extremely time-efficient and stress-avoidant, as we manage the whole job application and job interview process on your behalf, based on your criteria and expectations. Secondly, we have access to a wide range of law firms, law firm roles, and legal insights that may not be easily available online or through your direct contacts.

Our established relationships with law firms ensure that your CV does not get lost in a sea of resumes from “Easy Apply” LinkedIn submissions. We personalise our approach and provide realistic advice on your market standing. This is quite important as we have observed a growing supply of active and passive job seekers in the legal landscape, which is disproportionate to the demand from the client’s side.

By working with a legal recruitment agency, you increase your chances of being considered for a law firm job that matches your legal work experience, meets your job expectations and consequently makes a conscious and successful change in your career. Lastly, collaborating with an agency allows you to expand your network and establish connections with recruiters who can assist you not only in your current job search but also in filling roles you may need assistance with as a hiring manager, later in your career.

If you’re looking to move your legal profession from an in-house to a private practice role, please check out our law firm jobs or do reach out to Irini or our specialised team of legal recruitment consultants. Alternatively, if you’re looking to hire your next private practice or in-house lawyer, please contact us as well.