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Working in-house vs. working in private practice

Is the way to wealth private practice, or does in-house life offer similar rewards? For years, the way to make your fortune in law has been seen as this: choose a firm, commit to them and work your way up to partner.

These days, it seems as though working in-house might be another route to that fortune. Recent research conducted by the recruitment company Laurence Simons reveals that senior in-house lawyers were earning an average of £165,190 in salaries and bonuses - £15,000 more than the Prime Minister earns (at £150,402).

The choice between working in private practice and in-house comes down to more than just money, of course. Quality of work, work/life balance (or lack thereof) and business culture are all important factors that may push or pull you towards one or the other.

David Burgess is the founder of specialist pre-publication law firm Reviewed & Cleared. Hesays: “When I got to MTV and Hearst it was a relief not having to worry about time-sheets, but I also soon realised there was another upside — the sense of creativity that comes when you’re in-house. You’re integrally involved in the business, and have an enabling role, helping people to get things done.”

Caroline Kean, a partner with Wiggin, a media firm, has a different view. “I’ve been in private practice for the whole of my career, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I like the collegiate atmosphere that comes of working as a partner, and I think less-senior lawyers feel it too, when they’re working in a law firm that’s in good shape. I enjoy the feeling of working together for a common goal, that sense of pride when things come together.”

For Kean, there also “more autonomy when you work in private practice. There’s also such variety, because in a law firm you’ll have a number of clients in your practice.”

Gill Phillips, director of editorial legal services for The Guardian and Observer, concurs. “Like any big commercial operation, no one day is the same. We’ve had to get to grips with round-the-clock 365-days-a-year global operation, and we have to stay on top of developments in a sector which has an extraordinary pace of change.

“I like being involved in the delivery of the product and sharing in the decision-making, but I also like the ability to manage my hours. I work in the media but the positives I feel come from working in-house apply across the board.”

You’ll find most in-house roles in the corporate sector, although public sector lawyers can find opportunities too – in local government, the armed forces, the government and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Gill has experience of both, having worked for 12 years in-house before returning to private practice, where one culture shock lay in store: “I had to spend a lot of time every day building up my practice, as does every senior solicitor in a law firm. Cultivating contacts and new business opportunities is a major ongoing part of the role.”

“The two things, working in-house and in practice, both have their good points. It’s never a case of which is better, but of which is right for you at that time in your life.”

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