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Introduction to in-house legal

In-house legal departments differ considerably and the market has both grown and developed a great deal over the last ten years. The in-house legal market offers opportunities to lawyers looking for highly specialist roles where they can develop a very deep level of expertise, as well as lawyers looking for a generalist role where their responsibilities are continually growing and evolving. The availability of different types of role within an organisation depends on the size and the nature of the company.

Team structures

Within banks and other financial institutions, legal teams work very closely with other functions, in particular compliance, risk and company secretarial. Depending on the size of organisation and team, the Head of Legal or General Counsel may well act as Company Secretary and / or Head of Compliance.

Big international banks tend to have large legal teams, sometimes over 100 people, which effectively act like mini-law firms, with specialist departments made up of department heads with a team beneath them. For example, there may be specialists and / or teams focusing on Capital Markets, Derivatives, Securitisation, Structured Products, Leveraged Finance, Lending, Corporate, FSA Regulatory, etc. There will also be a corporate legal team with specialists to deal with litigation, contracts, technology, data protection and employment. Employment lawyers will sit either within legal or HR, depending on the structure of the organisation.

Outside the legal team, there will often be other lawyers dotted around the organisation, sitting within specific business areas, possibly on the trading floor undertaking a quasi-legal / business role. In addition, there are usually dedicated teams of mostly non-qualified lawyers specialising in ISDA document negotiation for derivatives transactions and transaction management, predominantly for general capital markets transactions.

There will always still be some legal work outsourced to law firms, but in-house legal teams are able to manage the costs more effectively to determine what can be dealt with in-house and what would be better dealt with in a law firm.

Even smaller entrepreneurial organisations, like hedge funds and venture capitalists, will often have in-house legal support, although they may only have one lawyer operating in a sole capacity, who will also take responsibility for all company secretarial and compliance work. Their roles vary considerably, from a board level position, where the lawyer will be heavily involved in every aspect of a deal, to very much a support position dealing predominantly with contractual matters.

Between the biggest and the smallest operations, there are many organisations in between, with in-house legal teams which tend to be made up of between five and ten lawyers who are a mixture of generalists and specialists, depending on the needs of the business.

Working environment

As a lawyer moving from private practice to in-house, you will find the working environment very different. No longer will you have to worry about billable hours targets and never again will you be at the mercy of your time sheet. However, your colleagues will now become your clients - hence you are pretty much at their beck and call and all they have to do is walk down the corridor or sometimes just across the trading floor to come and harangue you! On occasion, in-house lawyers have their own office or one shared with one or two others, but more often than not your desk will be in an open plan working environment and sometimes you will be sat on a very noisy and busy trading floor. This brings the excitement and interaction that lots of lawyers crave, but it will take some adjusting to!

Moving in-house, your work-life balance will dramatically improve and you will suddenly find that you can leave the office at a decent time and reliably keep arrangements you have made for the evening. However, your working day is likely to become more intense and you’ll no longer have downtime when you’re waiting to hear back from a client or waiting for a Partner to comment on a document.

What makes a strong candidate?

The strongest candidates combine relevant experience and the right kind of personality:


Secondment experience in particular is very valuable, as clients are reassured that candidates know what they are letting themselves in for. If you are looking to make your first move in-house, then try to get your law firm to second you to a client. This way you will gain first hand experience of the in-house environment and have more of an idea of the type of work on offer.


In a front facing role, people skills and communication skills are absolutely key. Technical skills are taken as a given, but there is no room for the backroom academic type – you must be capable of using your personality, in addition to your expertise, to influence situations and, above all, you must not be afraid of saying no to people! You must be able to stand up to the business when necessary and persuade your colleagues not to do something that they see as potentially highly lucrative, but which you have identified as having unacceptable legal risks.

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