In-house roles: no longer the low-paid alternative

by Mackenzie McCarty07 May 2014
Think the private practice vs in-house decision is all about longer hours and more pay vs fewer hours and consequently less money? Think again. Just take a look at the figures in the table at the bottom of this article (which take the average of recent Robert Walters and Law Society data).

Currently, 21% of New Zealand’s lawyers are working in-house, according to the New Zealand Law Society, and that number just keeps growing. In fact, it’s nearly doubled since 1995, when in-house counsel made up just 12% of New Zealand’s lawyers.

The so-called “revolving door, however, appears to be only opening in one direction. Anecdotally, Niche recruitment company director, Kathryn Cross, says that it’s far more common for legal professionals to move from private practice to in-house rather than the other way around – for a number of reasons. 

 “The desire to be more involved with the business rather than only having exposure to a part of a transaction as an external advisor, the perception of a better work/life balance … and a move away from the pressure of billing is attractive to many,” she says.

And on the demand side, she says the number of in-house opportunities have also increased, particularly when it comes to junior roles.

James Elliott moved from Bell Gully to an in-house role at APN several years ago, before taking up his current position as legal counsel at Mediaworks.

Elliott says that, while the belief that in-house lawyers have it easy when it comes to work/life balance is very much alive and well, the reality can be quite different. “A lot of it depends on the resources that are available to you as an in-house lawyer,” says Elliott. “Some people have this perception that an in-house lawyer has an easier ride in the sense that, if they need some specialist advice, to make a tough call, or to get something over the line at 5pm on a Friday, they can always outsource those demands.

“But the reality is that’s fine, but only as long as you’ve got a budget and a mandate to do that … and not everyone has. So the expectations might not be the reality.”
When asked if he would ever consider moving back into private practice, Elliott is quick to reply: “Probably not.”

One lawyer who has moved in the other direction is Minter Ellison Rudd Watts partner, Sarah Sinclair.

She had in-house roles at Enron Europe and American energy company Utilicorp, and, once back in New Zealand, Genesis Energy, but eventually switched back to working in a firm. “I was approached by a few firms to go back in to private practice and joined Minter Ellison Rudd Watts as a partner in September 2010,” she says.
Her decision to return to a large law firm was based on a desire for career development. “Personally, I love working in industry so it was a very tough decision to move back to private practice,” she says. “As I was not in the general counsel position, career development and progression was the key issue that prompted my move.  I was also attracted by the challenge of building my own practice and the opportunity of networking more broadly in the sectors that I operate in.”

Sinclair, like Elliott, also doesn’t buy into the idea that work/life balance is more readily achieved in-house.

“I think that you’re governed by your personality and work habits wherever you are – if you’re struggling with work/life balance in private practice then chances are you will also struggle with it in-house,” she says. 

Finally, Sinclair believes the tendency for lawyers to move from private practice to in-house roles and not visa-versa can be traced back to a very simple fact. “I’m not sure they want to move back – I don’t have experience of people finding it difficult to move back, but those that enjoy being in industry often wish to stay. I’m not sure why more people don’t move back to private practice, as it provides a great perspective having been in-house when you’re back in private practice,” she says. “Personally I have loved moving back.”

In-house salaries on par with private practice
Private practice Average salary In-house Average salary
1 yr PQE $44,833 1 yr PQE $56,750
4 yr PQE $81,250 4 yr PQE $76,500
7+ yr PQE $122,500 7+ yr PQE $117,500
Salaried partner $160,552 General counsel 10+ yr PQE (no staff) $145,929
Equity partner/director $244,460 General counsel 10+ yr PQE(with staff) $220,172


  • by Judith Eller 8/05/2014 1:18:03 p.m.

    I think that Sarah Sinclair raises an interesting point as to why more solicitors don't move back from in-house to private practice. I think one reason is they don't want to move back once they have had a taste of what an in house role can offer. Also from a recruitment angle I am often surprised by a firm's attitude to candidates who have worked in-house and looking for a move back to private practice. I am guessing that they see this as a "deviant" move from the main stream legal career and therefore it sends a message of not being committed to private practice. From where I sit wouldn't you think this is hugely valuable experience; one of how a business works and two on how best to deliver legal services to an in house team or client.