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Our exclusive Legal Week survey found that many assistants are attracted to taking up in-house careers, but, as Leigh Jackson explains, their levels of job satisfaction vary hugely

Leaving behind private practice – and the holy grail of partnership – to join an in-house legal division has become an increasingly popular career option for assistants. The appeal of a move in-house is clear, with companies generally offering more favourable working hours and the chance to provide a greater variety of advice.

We surveyed a host of top legal recruiters to gauge their opinion on which sectors present the best opportunities for prospective in-house lawyers and what companies are the best to work for.

The credit crunch fails to blunt banks’ appeal

Despite its recent economic woes, banking topped the sector charts with an average score of 3.75 out of 5 (see table overleaf). Thanks to the quality of global banking brands, the sector scored an impressive 4.8 for pay, 3.6 for prospects and 3.8 for quality of work.

According to Samantha Mediratta, director at Hays Legal, part of the draw of banking was the overall salary. She says: “Banking is renowned for its strong reward culture. Lawyers in the sector will generally be on a good basic with a high bonus potential.”

Global banks Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan were among the highest ranked organisations in the survey, with respondents praising Deutsche Bank for its “excellent training” and JP Morgan for its “good environment and quality work”. Barclays Capital also received a mention for its “great mentoring and good pay”.

The continued lure of the biggest banks is especially surprising considering the difficult year the sector has endured. In February, at least one lawyer was made redundant at Deutsche Bank following cuts in its commercial real estate division.

In July, Barclays Capital made legal redundancies as part of job cuts to its IT and European leveraged finance teams. And last week, of course, there was the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Ricky Mui, recruitment consultant with Robert Walters, believes that a big draw of banking is the potential it offers for lawyers to move into non-legal commercial roles.

He says: “Particularly in banks, it is not uncommon for lawyers to use this opportunity as a stepping stone in order to move into a front-office sales or trading role.”

Such a move was made recently by Barclays Capital UK and Europe general counsel Jake Scrivens, who took up the role of head of structured credit portfolio after more than 10 years working as part of the bank’s legal function.

Although banks continue to attract the brightest legal talent, the sector secured a relatively low score of 2.8 for employee culture.

LPA Legal Recuitment’s Chantal Omer reckons this may be a touch unfair. “The idea that banks are weaker on culture might be outdated. There could be confusion with the cutthroat nature of the business aspect of investment banking, which is not replicated on the legal side,” she said.

Media culture is simply irresistible, darling

While banks offer the highest pay, the media reigns supreme in terms of office culture. It was, however, ranked lower for salary – just ahead of the public sector and on a par with retail.

Entertainment business Virgin was the top ranked media company in the survey. The “strength of the brand” and the “opportunity to work under some of the most respected in-house lawyers” were cited as reasons for the company’s success.

Commenting on the media’s appeal to lawyers, Mui says: “Media pays less but is attractive for its entertainment benefits, as well as the dynamic work environment. Lawyers who move into media are more interested in the type of work and the company they work for, rather than the pay.”

Mediratta adds: “The media sector has always been able to draw a good pool of candidates, largely because it is perceived as glamorous; plus people can relate to the product.”

The not-so-civil service

It was somewhat surprising to see the public sector register the lowest mark overall – although its low mark for salary (1.4 out of 5) was not unexpected. It fared better for career progression and received a favourable rating for culture.

The findings show that public sector lawyers get to work reasonable hours, take long holidays and work flexibly. However, in comparison to their rivals in private companies, they are massively underpaid.

Size matters

With a number of large companies’ legal teams ranking among the top 10 in-house employers, it seems that when it comes to choosing a suitable in-house move, big is beautiful.

Support service business Amey was one of very few companies outside the FTSE 100 to reach the top 10, but the vast majority of the highest ranked companies were well-known blue-chip brands.

Gita Odedra, Hays Legal senior business manager, says lawyers looking to move in-house often view roles with larger companies as good career progression opportunities.

“Working for a blue-chip company is often important to lawyers making their first move in-house,” she says. “The assumption is that a company with a good reputation will be able to offer good career potential.”

However, Odedra points out that less well-known organisations can, on occasions, offer better prospects. “Sometimes with smaller companies lawyers get the chance to be more involved on the business side, which can present opportunities to move into a fully-fledged business role.”

A move abroad

With a number of top UK companies expanding into emerging markets, ambitious associates and experienced legal chiefs are taking up in-house roles in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Testament to the growth in expanding markets was JP Morgan’s decision to appoint its first ever general counsel for Europe, the Middle East and Africa in January. Karen Linney now heads up a team of 120 lawyers.

Moreover, earlier this year Siemens created a raft of new legal positions to handle cross-border work, with several roles in the CIS region.

Dubai-based international hotel group Jumeriah and the Commercial Bank of Dubai have also recently been luring UK lawyers east with major recruitment drives.

The future

With in-house lawyers continuing to earn less than their private practice counterparts – and the signs pointing to, if anything, an increase in that pay gap – there are worries that some companies may begin to struggle with recruitment.

However, Mediratta is unconcerned. She believes that the better work-life balance offered by companies means that working in-house will always be an attractive option to stressed out private practitioners – provided, that is, that companies are seen as stable enough to withstand present economic conditions.

“In this market, lawyers are more cautious about moving. If they are going to leave the relative safety of a law firm, most want to be sure they are going to a solid company with a good future.”

Legal Week in-house assistant survey – a closer look

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