Life in-house is likely to be quite unlike your role at the Bar – and there are huge differences between different in-house employers and the roles they offer. There are sole lawyer posts and very substantial legal departments. The majority of in-house roles will be in contract, corporate and commercial roles. Larger teams will have specialist posts which support the business concerned, perhaps relating to regulatory, employment, IP/IT or environmental law. They may also employ lawyers in professional support roles, and in legal operations – bringing business techniques to the management of the law. Increasingly, there are in-house lawyers in compliance roles, and specialisms such as competition and tax law. The largest teams may number 1,000 or more lawyers across the world and will cover the whole range of legal work. Not all teams will cover litigation in-house, but may perhaps manage external lawyers, and in most corporates, court work will be passed to external lawyers. Conversely, though, there are roles in regulators, industry bodies and some public sector organisations which may be particularly suited to someone with skills honed at the Bar.

Before you even apply for a job, do all you can to find out about the differences and the similarities. Speak to friends already in-house. Use your contacts to speak to in-house lawyers at the level you seek. If possible, try to find someone who works in the organisation or sector which interests you. Think about roles for which your skills and experience might give you an edge – for example in relation to regulatory work, or for those roles which include a degree of advocacy.

In most cases, the first step in your application will be responding to an online advertisement and contact with a search consultant or retained HR specialist. Their job is to fill the role against detailed job and person specifications – and your first task is to persuade them that you fit.

This means that you should choose the job – and organisation – carefully. Make sure that you can demonstrate how you meet the requirements of the specifications. It is worth scheduling out the requirements and how you meet them. Where you do not meet all the requirements, show how you have alternative skills or experience which help to fill the gap. A complete match is most unlikely but avoiding wholly speculative applications will let you focus on better opportunities.

Maximising your chances

Your application showcases your professional skills. It must be perfect. Spelling and grammatical errors point to poor attention to detail. Preparation or presentational errors may well lead to your application being rejected out of hand. You may think that these points are a given for lawyers, but sadly it remains very common to receive applications which include such errors, CVs prepared for another job, the name of the recipient or the company being misspelt, and even covering letters clearly addressed to another organisation altogether. Word blindness is common, and getting someone to proof read is well worthwhile.

You will be asked some obvious questions. Why do you want to work in-house? Why this organisation? Why this job? Think carefully about your answers and have them well-prepared. Explaining that you want a lifestyle change is unlikely to be helpful. You will be expected to have researched the organisation and its lawyers. Look at annual reports, company announcements, broker and press reports. What do they tell you about the legal issues facing the organisation? Many legal teams and their general counsel have been profiled in the legal press.

As a member of the Bar, you will be an unusual candidate. Most in-house lawyers are solicitors, and most recruiters will expect candidates to have prior in-house or law firm experience. Candidates will be used to working in teams, familiar with legal reporting software, and dealing with colleagues across an organisation. Think about where your experience may differ from this, and how you will explain your strengths. At the Bar you will be used to self-employment, so come prepare to give examples of where you have worked collaboratively with others – for example on a major case working with other counsel, a law firm and the client. You will be used to using your listening skills to discern key information – come with examples which you can apply to another role.

What are your career plans? A good in-house employer will see you as an investment and will expect to put time and effort into developing you and your career. They will want to understand that there will be a return on that investment and that you are likely to remain for a reasonable period. If you simply want to sample in-house life, why not consider secondments or short-term roles?

What is your experience? Relevant legal experience will be needed, but the extent of direct relevance will depend on the role, the employer, and your ability to relate them. Bring out the highlights of your work, secondments, legal writing, publications and relevant training and development. Understand you may be asked to complete formal assessments, psychometric or aptitude tests.

What else can you offer? What personal qualities demonstrate your strengths – perhaps from outside professional activities? What else do you do outside work, such as volunteering or trustee roles, or work for sporting, faith, or charitable causes. Why are you passionate about them, and what skills have you learnt from them which you bring to your professional life?

In-house interviews

At the interview stage, you can expect to meet the person to whom you will report, perhaps together with an HR colleague. You may also meet other members of the legal team, and other members of management. Some organisations, particularly in the public sector, will use panel interviews. Every person you meet will have different expectations and agendas – and each is an opportunity for you to impress. You would do well to research everyone you will meet, their experience; what are their interests? What sector or external roles do they play, and what does that tell you about the expectations of your role? Assume, too, that they will have researched you – understand your online profile and expect questions about it. If your LinkedIn profile, chambers’ website, and other social media activities do not support your application, get them changed.

Whether you have a physical or virtual interview, remember you will not just interact with the people interviewing you. Is there an expected dress code? Are there questions the organisation commonly asks at interview? The search consultant should be able to guide you if you ask. Remember also that you may well meet the secretarial staff setting up your interview, receptionists and security staff on arrival, and other support staff. Each will form a view of you – and may well be asked what they thought of you.

No two organisations are identical. Some will want pure legal expertise; others will look for the intellectual curiosity which will enable you to develop professionally into future roles. Try to find out what they are looking for – and be prepared to respond. Team structures differ: you need to understand not only who you will report to, but how the team works, who you will work with both in the legal team and the wider organisation, and their culture. How integrated is the legal team into the organisation? Does it have formal processes and quality procedures? What research tools are in use? How are you expected to work with external legal resources?

Think about work relationships too. Will you get on with your manager and the team? What is the turnover of staff – if people stay only a short time, why? If the team is very settled, what are your prospects of advancement?

Most in-house teams operate in a relatively informal style and aren’t hierarchical. Your interview is a two-way process, which in most cases is intended to be an opportunity to exchange views and allow you to learn about the organisation as well as for you to impress. It is not adversarial, and certainly not an opportunity for you to demonstrate your court skills. You may well be challenged, but you will be judged on how well you can present a response in a way which will persuade the listener, not a judge.

Think about how you can differentiate yourself from others. Your interviewer may well be unfamiliar with your day-to-day work at the Bar and the skills you will have learnt, so be alert to the chance to explain where your experience will relate to the role – perhaps in relation to negotiation or dispute resolution. You might well find that your experience in resolving disputes is helpful in allowing an organisation to avoid problems in future contracts. Perhaps you might also come prepared with a file of material of your research on the organisation. If you know enough about the specifics of the role, perhaps you can even come with a plan showing how you would carry out the role, and what you would do in your first few months. You should certainly come prepared with intelligent questions which allow you to show you have thought about the role and are fully engaged.

And finally…

An in-house career is a fascinating, rewarding and varied option and if it appeals to you for the right reasons, do consider it seriously. Be clear on what you seek – if you want to put your toe in the water and try it, rather than commit to a career, go for secondments, fixed term or temporary roles. If you are lucky enough to win your dream role, take responsibility for inducting yourself into it – ask to meet your colleagues, both in the legal team and in client roles. Most people love talking about themselves and will be open in telling you what they do, how they work together, and ‘how things work around here’. You may even be able to do this before you start work – it will give you an invaluable insight into the corporate culture, it will give you friends and allies from the start, and a real head-start into the role.

Competition for in-house roles is strong, so do be clear on what you offer, and the gaps that may be perceived in your application. Your skills and experience are key, but how you to prepare and present yourself will be your real differentiator.