One of the biggest career choices you’ll face as a lawyer is deciding if you want to work in a law firm, or in-house for an organisation. Whilst each route is a legitimate pursuit, there are differences in the work environment and the tasks you’ll undertake. Whether you’re a law student looking at your future career options or a solicitor looking for a change of direction, we explore those differences and discuss some of the factors you’ll need to consider in order to make the decision which best suits your legal career.
By Cara Fielder. Published 29 October 2018. Last updated 20 December 2023.
What does an in-house lawyer do?
An in-house lawyer works for a company, providing legal advice and guidance. Your only client is the business you work for, and you could cover anything from the small print on an employment contract or company policy, to navigating the legal intricacies of intellectual property or business procurement. You can become a part of the company and even shape its future.
What does a law firm lawyer do?
In contrast, a lawyer working for a firm will work with the clients of the practice, in an effort to support and guide them through the legal challenges they’re facing. It’s also possible you’ll have access to a greater variety of cases depending on your legal practice area. You’ll be involved in litigation and negotiations and may find the work more contentious than working in-house.
What are the main differences between in-house and law firm lawyers?
One of the biggest differences between working in-house or private practice is your salary. If you choose to work in-house you’ll likely be on a fixed income. However, in a firm, there could be more scope for fluctuating income, especially if services are charged by the hour or you have a personal stake in the future of the practice.
But the choice between working in a law firm or in-house comes down to more than just money, of course. The kind of work, quality of work/life balance – or lack thereof – and business culture, are also important factors that may push or pull you towards one or the other. Like many legal roles, it’s difficult to break down exact nuances between one employer and another, as there are many factors which can determine this. Take the time to research any potential employer and make sure their approach to work matches your own.
We spoke with several legal professionals and asked how they found working in-house or for a law firm. They discussed the benefits and how their experiences differed.
Benefits of working in-house
David Burgess, now Counsel at Netflix, says: “When I got to MTV and Hearst it was a relief not having to worry about timesheets, 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.”
“Any[one] considering in-house law should absolutely go for it,” says Emma Lilley, one of our alumna and Head of Legal (UK&I) at SD Worx. “There are more opportunities out there than you realise. In-house is the largest growing sector in the legal profession; ignore any archaic advice and don’t let anyone hold you back.” She even set up, In-house Potter, a website to teach more people about the career route.
Benefits working in a law firm
However, 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 is “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.”
Choosing between in-house and a law firm
Ultimately, it appears to come down to personal preference. Gill Phillips, director of editorial legal services for The Guardian and Observer, has experience of both, having worked for 12 years in-house before returning to private 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.”
So, it’s down to you. Consider the kind of work you want to do, and the environment you want to do it in. Read the varied career stories of our alumni to explore each route in greater detail. Finally, remember choosing one path doesn’t close the door on the other, you can always switch at a later date and take your skills with you.
In-house or law firm? No matter which path you choose you can explore our Professional Legal Training options and enhance your legal skills today.