A conversation with Ruth Karongo on in-house legal opportunities

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Q- Tell us a bit about yourself?

I studied Law at Queen Mary University of London and graduated in 2014. I then took some time to volunteer for an education charity, working as a teaching assistant at an inner-city school. I have always been passionate about education and social mobility and saw an opportunity to give back, as well as develop my own skill set.

Following this, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship from the Law Society to study the LPC at BPP Law School which I completed with a Distinction in 2016. Since then, I have held various roles at University of London including my current role as a legal advisor. I advise students and staff on landlord and tenancy law. I will be commencing an in-house training contract at a national broadcaster in September 2021.

Q- What does it mean to work in-house as a lawyer?

A- As an in-house lawyer, your role is to support the business in meeting its goals and objectives whilst minimizing risk. Depending on the size of the organisation you work for, you may be a generalist or you might qualify and specialise into a particular area of law. Either way, your experience is likely to be varied as you might be handling a deal negotiation one day and an employment matter the next. 

One of the key requirements of an in-house lawyer is to understand their business inside out given that it is your one client. At trainee level, this means that you will be required (and trained) to think commercially from the on-set. As such, polishing up your commercial awareness skills will be highly beneficial in helping you to secure an in-house opportunity. 

Q- What made you want to work in-house? 

A- I did not necessarily set out wanting to work in-house but I knew that I wanted to pursue commercial law in a reputable organisation with a high-quality training programme. Naturally, this led me to look at private city firms. 

However, as I began to apply and carry out further research, I realised that the same opportunities could be found in-house – you just have to be very diligent with your research as they are not as commonly advertised. 

I was also fortunate enough to spend two weeks shadowing lawyers at an international oil company, which showed me that a career in-house could be incredibly varied and enjoyable. I liked the idea of being focused on one client and being part of a wider organisation working with non-lawyers. The promise of a better work-life balance in-house was also a draw!

Q- What drew you to the company? 

A- I was drawn to this particular organisation primarily because of its reputation as a leading broadcaster and the exciting work that this produces for its legal team. I knew that working with the largest broadcaster in the world would mean working on industry-leading deals and cutting-edge productions and matters. 

It was also particularly important to me to be part of a small trainee intake as I knew, through many conversations with current and former trainees, that this would lead to more responsibility and recognition. Being one of only four trainees in my intake will provide me this opportunity.

Finally, I was keen to train with an organisation offering a varied Training Contract (TC) as I was uncertain about the particular area of law I wanted to qualify into. Having the opportunity to experience various seats, including IP, Employment as well as a litigation seat in private practice was a real draw. 

Q- How should students figure out what company they want to work in-house for? 

  • Research – As I mentioned, in-house opportunities are not as widely advertised as those in private practice are. Therefore, you will have to do a bit more research to find them and work out whether they are suited to you. I would recommend making use of websites such as Chambers Student and Lawyer 2B which provide excellent information on alternative careers in law. You can also keep up to date with in-house specific news via The Law Society’s In-House Division and The Lawyer’s In-House section. It may be that you have to look up organisations individually and search their website for opportunities. Additionally, in-house TC openings may not follow the same pattern as private practice. For example, although RBS offer TCs, they only make them available at certain points of the year and it would be essential for you to express your interest to a member of the HR team so that you can be notified when a position becomes available.

 

  • Network – There’s no better way to learn about a company than from its current employees. Through asking questions, you can better understand the culture, the work and the company’s values and make an informed decision about whether it is the right place for you. You can meet current trainees, counsels and members of graduate recruitment at law fairs, open evenings, company events and even social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Virtual networking is likely to become even more popular given the current global pandemic so do not feel shy about reaching out to a current employee of a company you are interested in working at. Most people will be happy to offer 30 minutes of their time to answer questions and it will strengthen your application if you have gotten a deeper insight into the company and can pin-point exactly why you want to work there.

 

  • Work Experience – Work experience is an excellent way to gain exposure into the company you are interested in working for. It will allow you to get a flavour of the type of work you would be involved in and also first-hand insight into the culture. You can obtain work experience through formal means (i.e. schemes run by the organisation) or informal means (i.e. networking). For formal schemes, I would recommend searching the recruitment pages of the particular company you are interested in and joining organisations such as Aspiring Solicitors which partner with different organisations to provide work experience opportunities to students. For example, every year, Barclays’ legal team run a work experience scheme for Aspiring Solicitor members. Through networking, you may be able to make connections through whom you can obtain work shadowing or experience opportunities. Following graduation, I was able to secure two work experience opportunities (both at city firms) through lawyers who I had met at networking events. This experience stood out in my applications and was a talking point during my final interviews for my TC.

Q- What was the application process like?

 A- application process was very similar to most TC applications. It started with an online application form with the typical ‘Why us’, ‘Why you’ question and other company specific questions which required you to show off your commercial awareness as well as understanding of the role of the in-house legal team. Following this, I was required to sit a Watson Glazer test and after that complete a written case study exercise. The final stage was an assessment day, which included a presentation, group discussion and final interviews.

My advice for any application process would be to be well researched, be concise and always proof read and proof read some more. The initial application form is the toughest stage. Therefore, it is crucial that you do everything you can to ensure that your application is progressed at that point. Beyond that, I would say practise! Practise any tests you are required to take so that you are comfortable and confident by the time the real thing comes and also practise as many interview questions as possible with as many people as possible. The Corporate Law Academy have a great list of over 150 TC interview questions which you can use as a starting point.

Q- How is in-house different from working in law firms?

A- The skills required of in-house lawyers and those in private practice are broadly the same. However, as I mentioned, one of the key differences (depending on a particular organisation) is that in-house lawyers might be more generalist i.e. cover more areas whereas most of those in private practice will specialise into a particular practice area. 

In private practice, the law is the primary business of the firm and the way in which it makes money. This means that you will be predominantly working with other lawyers and have access to legal resources and technology. Working in-house, the focus of the organisation will be its core business and industry for example, insurance, media or banking. During my time shadowing in-house, I learnt that in-house legal teams can sometimes be viewed as an ‘expense’ and at times an obstacle to achieving certain goals. This can be challenging for in-house lawyers particularly in smaller organisations. 

However, on the other hand, being integrated into a business and collaborating with non-lawyers can broaden your skill set as well as network. Most in-house teams will also often instruct a private firm to assist with more specialised matters and provide access to further legal resources. 

Most of us have heard of billable hours, which is the way in which most law firms charge their clients. This is a key part of the working life of a private practice lawyer, and sometimes trainees, as they will be required to record their working day minute by minute so that the firm can bill clients accordingly. This is not a requirement in-house as the organisation is your only client and the legal department is one of its business functions.

 

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