Legal Business Blogs

Comment: In-house counsel: more to do and happy about it

There are familiar themes and a few mixed messages from this year’s in-house lawyer survey but one obvious point to take away: employed counsel like the day job. A lot.

The response to two quality of life questions added into the survey this year is perhaps the clearest indication I have seen of the extent to which working in-house has become an increasingly threatening competitor to private practice.

Seventy-six percent of our respondents rated themselves as satisfied with their job, including 25% classing themselves as ‘extremely satisfied’. In contrast only 7% put themselves down in the lowest two marks on a five-point scale, with the remaining 17% in the middle. Furthermore, 74% definitely see themselves having a long-term career as an in-house lawyer, against only 6% ruling it out.

These numbers certainly tell a story about how the profession is changing. Law firm associates are consistently a lot more downbeat than that in comparable surveys and I doubt even partner respondents would get near that figure.

Given that in-house teams have generally taken on more responsibility and work in recent years such satisfaction levels are striking and suggest an enduring attachment to working for companies. It seems that in-house counsel remain inclined to benchmark themselves against private practice and believe they have a comparatively good deal, even as their in-tray piles up.

As is borne out of a number of interviews we conducted for the survey, having some measure of control over their lives and autonomy is the big draw for in-house lawyers, even as keeping up with their workloads becomes more challenging. These attitudes appear to be entrenched enough to keep reshaping the UK legal profession in the years ahead, suggesting that in-house will be the ‘stickiest’ branch of the profession against law firms, self employment and New Law providers.

But if general counsel (GCs) are glad they don’t work for a law firm, our survey confirms the trend of recent years that they are increasingly happy with the law firms working for them. Only 5% of clients thought their advisers were ‘poor’ value for money, with 60% viewing their law firms as ‘good’. It is increasingly apparent in the results and the comments of GCs that law firms have given more ground in fees and billing practices in recent years. While this is reflected across the board and has been seen progressively in our annual poll over the last three years, this year it is notable that some of the largest City law firms now get solid notices on value for money.

Elsewhere, all the arrows are pointing in the direction of rising demand for legal services, both in the expansion of legal teams, budgets and spending on external counsel. For all the talk of more-for-less, most companies are still facing rising underlying demand for legal services.

For the legal industry there are two potential factors that can break that expansive trend: the impact of advanced automation and technology tools, as we explore elsewhere this month, and the looming referendum on EU membership. But the message right now is that clients are happy with their life and lawyers. What could possibly go wrong?

For the full in-house report, subscribers can read: ‘The In-House Lawyer Survey 2015: Balancing Acts.’