What is it like transitioning from in-house to private practice, and how do the roles differ? As part of our In-House Insights we spoke to Blake Morgan Associate and former in-house lawyer Kat Goussous.
Kat is part of the Commercial and Charities team and advises on a broad range of commercial matters for a variety of both private and public clients, including technology companies, major manufacturers, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), and not-for-profit organisations.
She worked in-house for over five years before joining Blake Morgan. Her first-hand experience of the pressures and demands of fast paced environments means she understands what clients need from their legal advisors. Kat was eager to get involved with Counsel+, Blake Morgan’s business forum designed for in-house lawyers, recognising the benefits of such a group and the power of networking.
What attracted you to private practice?
Kat describes her pathway to becoming a solicitor as an unusual route. She trained and qualified in-house at an FMCG before moving to a tech company on as an NQ (newly qualified solicitor). “At the time it was unusual, not many lawyers trained in-house but alternative routes to qualification are becoming more available now,” remarked Kat. “I am actually really glad that I started off in-house before moving into private practice, it has bolstered what I can offer to clients and to the firm as well. It gives you different perspectives and skills that are valuable to clients.”
Kat explains that there were many factors behind her move to private practice, but one of the key drivers was wanting to be more involved in business development and networking.
When you're in-house, most of the networking focus is aimed at general counsels, or senior lawyers. That needs to change – building a network and having a portfolio of people you can rely on is crucial at all stages.
This is what Counsel+ offers in-house lawyers, the opportunity to be part of a network of legal experts. The forum was set up to encourage collaboration. Whether newly qualified or an established general counsel, you can benefit from the learning resources complemented by networking opportunities with other legal professionals across a wide range of sectors and organisations at Counsel+.
Another driver for Kat was to take the valuable knowledge and skills she’d gained in-house and enhance them further. Recognising that in-house teams are often lean and limited in resource, the really complex legal questions tend to be outsourced. “In private practice, you get to focus more on those nuanced technical legal issues. Personally, I wanted to be the expert that people went to and I wanted to be answering those questions that we were outsourcing. You may well know it in-house but you just don’t have the time or the resource to do it properly. I wanted to be that person who was figuring out those questions rather than the one asking them.”
How do the roles differ and what skills do you need?
“This is widely known,” Kat said, “but one of the main differences is time recording and billing. There’s a running joke with one of my managers about how goal orientated I am, so for me I really value being able to quantify the value I add to the firm.” In contrast, the pressure on in-house lawyers focuses on improving business efficiencies to help the company be more profitable. Often in-house lawyers spend a large portion of their time finding ways to improve and automating processes and operations of the legal team so they can spend more time doing legal work. This means one of the key skills that in-house lawyers develop is project-management skills and the ability to work cross functionally to implement new processes.
“When you’re in-house, your client is the business, which means you have to be alive to the business needs and strategy in order to effectively advise your colleagues, and ensure your advice is aligned with the business’s risk appetite. You’re often the one making the decisions on legal issues, bearing in mind your company’s needs.” Kat said this has helped her develop strong commercial awareness, and has been invaluable to take with her into private practice, commenting: “I’m able to quickly understand different client’s needs and risk appetite. However, it is an adjustment to have to advise at an arm’s length and allow the client to make the decision, rather than being the decision maker myself!”
Another difference is market expertise. “When you’re in-house, your job is to understand your company inside and out.” Kat pointed out that the challenge that comes with this is not having sight of what other peers are doing in the industry, and noted that this comes back to networking and having external peers to understand what others in your industry are doing. “However, when you’re in private practice your job is to understand the market as a whole – you work with different clients across different sectors, and they come to you expecting you to understand and advise them in line with what the market is doing. You have a much more holistic picture.”
Although there are obvious differences, there are many transferrable skills that both roles bring – both require flexibility and adaptability, as well as an ability to offer realistic solutions.
How has being in-house helped you?
In addition to the above, Kat said: “it was amazing exposure. Training at a large FMCG made me see how big enterprises work and the challenges that they face within that global organisation.
“After I qualified, I moved to a small start-up tech company. I saw this scale-up very quickly and experienced first-hand the challenges that in-house legal teams face through the different company phases. It means I have a good understanding of what different legal teams of different sizes need, and what companies may need at different stages of their lifecycle.”
What challenges did you face in-house?
Kat highlighted capacity as an issue for in-house lawyers. “It quite often depends on the size of the team that you’re in. If you’re in small legal team, quite often you’re just firefighting,” she said. “You are being very reactive to issues that come up and don’t really have as much capacity to think forward and plan.”
Another common challenge for legal teams is having access to legal resources or specialist expertise. “In-house teams are often generalists, having to deal with everything, which is great exposure,” explained Kat, who has clearly gained commercial nous from her time in-house.
It gives you a really good insight into the business needs and the challenges the business faces across different legal issues. But you can lack expertise in particular areas or access to legal resources which can help answer those issues, which is where outsourcing can be invaluable.
A positive impact
Having a commercial background and being able to think commercially about the business needs is positive in her current role, which benefits clients in all areas. She is able to provide pragmatic, commercial advice that is tailored to the business.
The challenges that arise in-house are also an opportunity, and Kat is keen to play a role in helping in-house lawyers have access to resources and networks that will help them and their businesses succeed.
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