Your career as a solicitor might last thirty-five, even forty years. That is an awfully long time and must seem a daunting prospect when standing at the start line wondering what on earth might lie ahead in the next few months let alone the next few years.

Where the adventure begins

Some students will be motivated by a strong vocational pull, others by the intellectual challenge; some may even be motivated by the potential to earn big money. Whatever your motivation and wherever your career begins, the most important thing to know at this stage is that your first steps do not, and should not, put you on an inexorable course where depth and variety are inevitably sacrificed in the pursuit of knowing more and more about less and less until you know almost everything about nearly nothing.

It doesn’t have to be the case that one day you will wake up and find that you are fat and forty and good for nothing except writing obscure articles for even more obscure journals on international derivative junk bond issues in the Asian Pacific rim.

A career in the law is a wonderful adventure. An adventure in creative problem solving, in the application of know-how to the benefit of business, individuals and the communities we live and work in. It is an adventure in self-discovery too, with a never-ending challenge to discover the limits of ones potential and then to deliver outstanding service in everything we do. It is a brilliant way to earn a living.

Whatever your practice choices might be in the future, you have already chosen well by choosing a career in the law.

In-house is best, with the best still to come.

One way of practising the law, however, is in-house. Working in a legal department in a business with just that business as a your client. In-house is where I have spent most of my career and my judgement is that for many it is the very best way to practice.

The last ten years has seen a phenomenal growth in the numbers of in-house solicitors; solicitors who work in financial services, in manufacturing, in telecommunications, in pharmaceuticals, in petroleum and now increasingly in the new e-businesses as well.

There are now more than eight thousand working in commerce and industry and a few more thousand in local government and central government departments. This means that more than ten percent of the profession now works as an in-house solicitor. It is the fast growing sector bar none and by far the most influential.

Why the most influential? Three good reasons:

1. Businesses employ lawyers to help them make better decisions. In-house lawyers have direct access to the most powerful business people in the country and in Europe. You will influence these significant opinion formers in their own environment and directly contribute to the strategic direction of our most successful companies. That’s what I call influence.

2. In-house lawyers manage the external spend on legal fees. I know many many companies each with legal fees budgets of several millions of pounds. You will influence how that money is spent, when it is spent and on what. That’s what I call influence.

3. In-house solicitors can also largely dictate where their budgets are spent. You may therefore become a big player in the legal market place, buying services, influencing standards, managing risk, creating panels of law firms for your company. Collectively in-house solicitors are the biggest purchasers of legal services in the UK. That’s what I call influence.

In-house is a big job and it keeps on getting bigger and better all the time.

The world of business and business people has changed out of all recognition in less than ten years. Not only are companies and industries more heavily regulated than ever before, there is so much more besides. The influence of Europe, of competition laws, the rise and rise of the consumer and consumer champions, the need for openness, for ethical standards, for good governance, for observance of voluntary codes, for vigilance from competitors and an inquisitive press. Combined with the need to operate in a 24:7 environment, sometimes across the globe and always at the speed of the spectacular wired (and increasingly wireless) world we have created for ourselves.

And all the time the difference between success and failure gets smaller and smaller and all the time the margin for error gets tighter and tighter. In this environment, expert, relevant, timely, commercial, practical advice delivered by a lawyer confident in the law, steeped in the custom, policy and practice of their business and in their industry, is like a magic lubricant keeping the wheels of the company turning and the engine running smoothly.

To be responsible for it is a wonderful challenge and a special responsibility. For me it is best way to apply my knowledge and my skills. It’s where the law makes a difference, sometimes it is the difference, and there is no bigger buzz than that.

Private practice in all its forms can and will be just as good in different ways, but I never appreciated being at arms length, consigned to a bit part in a process where action and consequence were divorced and where my investment was indistinguishable from the investment of many others.

This journey we call a career has also to be a learning experience. A time and place where we grow and become better for the rich variety of our experiences. I like the multi-disciplinary approach of working in-house. I like the team ethos of bringing together business people, I.T. specialists, finance experts and project planners and allowing the solutions found to be better than the individual efforts would muster on their own. I enjoy instructing good firms and good counsel and learning from their approaches and their ideas. I like testing my assumptions in an environment where to cope well with change is a prerequisite of success.

A career in-house can give you all this. I would recommend it to anyone. Join the one in ten who have decided it is for them already and I don’t think it is a decision you would ever regret.

Does it pay as well?

In terms of pay alone, it won’t compare with those who ply there trade above the ozone layer, but packages are good and improving. What is more, in-house lawyers will often enjoy the benefits packages that come with management grades in our commercial enterprises such as cars, pensions, bonuses, options, health care, cr?che facilities etc etc etc. It is also probably not an exaggeration to say that our best corporations are more family friendly, less macho and more open than many law firms…these things matter too.

Working hard is not the issue. We all have to work hard these days; but working hard is not the same as working smart and burning the mid night oil routinely is not smart.

So what if you want to start your career in-house? Is this a possibility too?

Well, yes it is a possibility. The larger in-house departments do offer training contracts, but they are few and far between. It is a situation that may change but for now you are more likely to train with a firm before you begin your in-house career.

The Law Society’s statistics show that in 1999 there were (…) trainees in-house and I doubt the figure will grow significantly in the next year or two. The Law Society maintains a list of companies who offer training contracts. There are though more opportunities to share training contracts and go in-house on secondment for a month or two or even longer. I have managed trainees in-house and both placed and taken lawyers on secondment.

Everyone benefits in my opinion and if the opportunity is there push to take it…if it isn’t there, why not suggest it.

Not for everyone.

In-house isn’t for everyone. It can be a lonely place on occasions and nearly two thirds of in-house solicitors practice in departments of just one, two or three. That can be daunting. Sometimes the in-house lawyer loses in the popularity stakes as tough calls do not always equate to good news. But do it well and your professionalism and integrity will be valued more highly and your contribution will be sought more readily.

Furthermore, if you are one of those lawyers that like the law for the law’s sake, you may find the commercial pragmatism required a little upsetting. Being able to say “yes” or “no” in as many words is as diamonds to coal dust for anyone caught taking a wistful glance to an esoteric case report and uttering the words “well it depends”!

The next challenge

Private practice offers fantastic careers, with rewards and experiences that can all be valued. The really interesting thing to see now is how the relationship between in-house solicitors and their colleagues in private practice develops over the next few years. Both need each other to offer the rounded, expert service our business need. Both need each other to develop new ways of delivering advice and legal services. Both need each other to develop the role of the lawyer in business as business people.

These challenges are there now and the most exciting thing of all is that today’s students will be the ones who have to find the solutions. Whichever way your career path takes you, whether you start in-house, move there later or stay in private practice, the law is a wonderful place to be. Make the most of it. Be outstanding.