Top skills in-house legal departments look for in candidates

9 mins
Sellick  Partnership

By Sellick Partnership

In an era of ever-changing regulations and digital transformation, the importance of in-house legal departments has never been greater. They are instrumental in supporting organisations with navigating complex regulatory frameworks, mitigating risks, and making strategic decisions that align with business objectives. 

As the demands on these departments continue to evolve, so do the expectations placed on candidates looking to enter this exciting professional path. 

In this guide, we’ll explore why in-house legal professionals are in demand and delve into 5 of the most significant legal skills you should develop to land your ideal in-house role. 

Why in-house legal professionals are in demand

Whether you are an aspiring law graduate or an experienced Solicitor, pursuing roles within in-house legal departments is a forward-thinking choice. The number of in-house legal roles has grown significantly over the past few years, with a report from the Law Society claiming that the amount of in-house Solicitors has tripled over the last couple of decades.

Although the in-house legal job market saw a slight downturn in 2023  due to economic uncertainties, the demand for high-quality candidates to join legal departments remains. With the demand for exceptional talent outpacing the availability of qualified professionals, now is a great time for ambitious candidates to enter the world of in-house law. 

Here are the key trends reshaping the legal sector and driving the demand for in-house legal professionals: 

  • Cost efficiency: Assembling in-house legal teams can be less costly than relying on external support. By having unrivalled legal expertise in-house, organisations can reduce the need for outsourcing legal work, leading to lower expenses in the long run.
  • A complex regulatory landscape: It’s no secret that regulations are becoming increasingly complex across various industries, especially in the legal sector. In-house legal teams play a pivotal role in ensuring compliance and enhancing their companies’ understanding of intricate legislation. 
  • Greater emphasis on risk management: Companies face a wide array of potential risks, ranging from legal disputes to cyber security threats. In-house legal professionals are adept at identifying, assessing, and mitigating these risks.
  • Strategic partnerships: Far from being solely legal advisors, in-house professionals are often viewed as strategic business partners as well. They are typically involved in decision-making processes from the early stages, providing legal insights that contribute to the company's overall prosperity.
  • Increased focus on data protection: With the increasing importance of data privacy regulations like GDPR, businesses are investing more in legal professionals with expertise in data protection and cyber security principles. In-house legal departments are tasked with ensuring compliance with these regulations and protecting sensitive company and customer data.

With every indication that these influential trends are set to continue impacting the in-house legal space, it is likely that the number of in-house job vacancies will remain high over the coming years. Transitioning into in-house law offers numerous benefits for Solicitors looking to hone their craft within an organisation’s legal department, including job stability, a relatively healthy work-life balance, and a diverse variety of legal work. 

To discover more about how to land a job in this rewarding and versatile area of law, we urge you to read our How to break into in-house legal jobs guide. 

Top 5 legal skills in-house departments look for in candidates

For a prosperous and fulfilling in-house law career, having expert knowledge of relevant legislation and legal concepts isn’t enough. The brightest and best candidates in this field will be able to display a combination of legal knowledge, business acumen, and excellent interpersonal skills. 

Having the right mix of professional and personal attributes is vital to standing out in the increasingly competitive landscape of in-house legal recruitment. Here, we’ll explore five of the most essential legal skills you should develop if you wish to appeal to hiring managers at in-house legal departments. 

1. Contract negotiation

Contract negotiation is one of the most crucial duties in-house legal professionals must regularly perform. In-house Solicitors often serve as the bridge between legal departments and external businesses, at the forefront of protecting their company’s interests by guaranteeing favourable outcomes, supporting business goals, and mitigating risks. Knowing how to negotiate effectively is a skill you must nurture if you wish to pique the interest of potential employers. 

There are many techniques that you should adopt to improve your negotiation abilities, including: 

  • Effective questioning: During negotiations, it is best practice for in-house Lawyers to ask open-ended questions to give the other party a platform to voice their priorities and decision-making process. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to identify areas of agreement and differences of opinion.  
  • The strategic use of silence: The power of silence cannot be understated, especially in a negotiation where pauses can signify many things. Negotiators can use pauses to encourage the other party to clarify their position. 
  • Active listening and communication:  Soft skills like outstanding communication and active listening are paramount in contract negotiations. Clearly communicating your priorities and interests while paying attention to the other party’s needs is a great way to pinpoint areas of agreement and possible concessions. 
  • Building rapport: Developing a sense of rapport with the other party is another useful negotiating tactic. By building trust with each other, negotiators can reduce unnecessary tension, avoid impasses, and collaborate with each other to solve disagreements. 

Facilitating agreements between organisations and external parties is no easy feat, but by getting it right, in-house Lawyers can actively contribute to the success and growth of their businesses while reducing the legal risks and ensuring compliance with the relevant legislation. Adopting a friendly, flexible, yet firm negotiating position will help you achieve agreeable terms and go a long way in developing positive relationships with external parties that may prove valuable in the future. 

2. Risk management and compliance 

For the vast majority of in-house legal departments, risk management and compliance are key to safeguarding business interests. By implementing the right strategies to mitigate risks and ensure regulatory compliance, in-house Solicitors can protect their organisations from legal pitfalls. 

There are numerous factors contributing to the growing emphasis on risk and compliance in the legal sector, including: 

An evolving regulatory landscape

The emergence of new legislation and regulations is significantly reshaping the legal sector. As rules around regulatory compliance and risk management evolve, it can be difficult for companies and legal departments to keep up with the pace of change. In-house legal professionals are instrumental in helping businesses navigate the ever-more complex world of risk and compliance, providing expert guidance on best practices and how to avoid penalties. 

Increased scrutiny from regulatory bodies

With constant regulatory change, it is unsurprising that regulatory bodies and the public are placing greater emphasis on scrutinising organisations for compliance breaches. If found liable, businesses may face punishments such as sizable financial penalties, reputational damage, and, in some cases, even criminal charges. In-house legal departments are responsible for helping companies mitigate these risks and satisfy regulatory agencies. 

The rise of cyber security threats

Cyber security threats are a constant area of concern for businesses, especially given the increased sophistication of cyber attacks. As data privacy regulations, GDPR, and CCPA continue to add an extra layer of complexity to data handling and security practices, companies have to pay closer attention to bolstering their cyber defences to protect against devastating data breaches. In-house legal professionals are often tasked with implementing data security policies and managing the legal risks associated with cyber attacks. 

To effectively combat these trends, it is necessary for in-house legal counsel to go above and beyond to develop their risk management and compliance skills. Here are the best ways to refine your expertise in this area: 

  • Attain professional certifications: Gaining accredited risk management and compliance certifications will demonstrate to potential employers that you have been proactive in developing your skills in this important aspect of in-house law. Some universities offer specialised LLM programs in areas such as Risk Management and Compliance Law, while organisations like the Law Society and the Compliance and Risk Institute offer professional certifications. 
  • Gain valuable experience: Gaining on-the-job experience in a setting that allows you to enhance your risk and compliance skills is another guaranteed way of impressing hiring managers at in-house legal departments. You can get experience in various ways, including secondments within risk and compliance teams, shadowing colleagues, and volunteering for relevant projects. 
  • Network with fellow in-house Lawyers: Networking and knowledge sharing with like-minded legal professionals can help enrich your understanding of risk and compliance principles. Attending industry events and joining professional organisations like the Association of Corporate Counsel or the In-House Lawyers' Group are ideal ways to connect with like-minded Lawyers who can provide you with their unique perspectives on risk and compliance law. 
  • Keep up to date with the latest developments: Staying informed about the hot-button trends affecting the risk and compliance space is a surefire method of ensuring that your skills and knowledge in this area remain relevant. You can stay aware of the latest risk and compliance regulations in several ways, such as regularly checking regulatory and government websites, participating in relevant webinars and conferences, and seeking guidance from experienced in-house Lawyers. 

3. Proficiency with cutting-edge technology 

The advancement of state-of-the-art digital technology is forcing all industries to adapt their processes, and the legal sector is no exception. Being tech-savvy is no longer desirable for aspiring in-house law candidates; it is essential. With research from Gartner suggesting that legal departments are set to spend three times their existing budget on legal technology by 2025, it is almost certain that employers will pay closer attention to their candidates’ technical abilities going forward. 

According to People in Law, 60% of organisations are expecting their dependency on advanced digital skills to grow over the coming years. If you are an aspiring in-house Lawyer looking to stand out from the competition, developing your technical abilities is a must. 

Here are the ways you can hone your technology skills: 

  • Get to grips with the basics: Depending on your level of digital literacy, you may want to take some time to master the basics before trying to learn about specialised legal tech. You should give yourself plenty of time to become familiar with everyday tools like spreadsheets, word processors, and document management systems. Being well-versed in digital communication platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams is also crucial. 
  • Develop an understanding of legal technologies: Once you have a solid grasp of everyday digital tools, you can explore advanced legal tech software. Several legal research platforms, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, can help you source relevant information faster. Understanding case management and eDiscovery software will also be useful when applying for in-house legal jobs. 
  • Embrace continuous learning: The key is to have a curious mindset and a willingness to soak up as much information as possible. With a tech-savvy mindset, you’ll be able to put your digital skills into practice with ease. Be sure to pursue learning opportunities, such as workshops, online courses, and boot camps offered by formal education providers. Networking with legal professionals passionate about technology may also help you develop your digital knowledge. 

4. Business acumen 

As we alluded to earlier, in-house Lawyers are expected to possess legal expertise and business acumen, as their guidance must align with their companies’ overall objectives and goals. Having commercial awareness, financial knowledge, and industry expertise can be just as valuable as providing thorough legal guidance. Ultimately, business acumen allows in-house Lawyers to move beyond their traditional roles and become trusted business partners. 

Developing this skill is not a straightforward undertaking, particularly for Solicitors with a background in private practice who may lack business experience. However, by following the right steps, you’ll be able to confidently add business-savvy to your CV’s list of skills. 

Here are our top tips for how to enrich your business acumen: 

  • Gain hands-on experience: One of the most effective methods of developing your business knowledge is to learn through experience. Be sure to seek internships within companies’ legal departments, participate in law school training programs that simulate real-world situations, and engage in voluntary work at charities to understand concepts like budgeting and resource allocation. 
  • Take accredited courses: Numerous courses will enhance your understanding of business. Many education providers offer courses that cover a wide range of relevant topics, including corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, and business contracts. You could also take courses in finance and accountancy to enhance your knowledge of market forces and financial statements. 
  • Engage in a mentorship program: Seeking mentorship from long-established in-house legal professionals is a great way to develop your business acumen. You can ask them to provide you with expert guidance and practical advice on how to impress potential employers with your business skills. 
  • Devote some personal time to learning: It is essential to dedicate significant time to learning all about the world of business. Listening to industry podcasts, analysing annual reports, and reading blogs written by accomplished in-house Lawyers are all handy ways to discover more about business in your spare time. 

5. Soft skills 

Soft skills can often be decisive when it comes to achieving success in in-house legal careers. A study conducted by Harvard University supports this notion. The research found that soft skills determine 80% of achievements in a Lawyer’s career and only 20% by hard skills. While it is essential to stress that these somewhat surprising findings should not detract from the significance of hard skills, they nevertheless highlight just how possessing outstanding soft skills can dramatically elevate a candidate’s career.

There are various soft skills you should nurture in order to prove to hiring managers that you have what it takes to thrive within an in-house legal department, including: 

  • Written and verbal communication: A core duty for any in-house Lawyer is to explain intricate legal concepts to colleagues who are unfamiliar with legal principles and jargon. With strong communication skills, legal professionals can convey important information clearly and foster positive relationships with teammates from diverse backgrounds. 
  • Flexibility: In-house legal departments are often faced with rapidly changing situations and unexpected difficulties. They are routinely called on to find innovative solutions to emerging challenges, a task that can only be achieved with a flexible, adaptable approach. 
  • Time management and organisation: It’s not uncommon for in-house Lawyers to have to juggle various tasks and responsibilities simultaneously. As such, it is essential for them to possess strong time management skills to help them meet their deadlines without sacrificing the quality of their work. 
  • Resilience: Stress and demanding situations are part and parcel of life as an in-house Lawyer, and cultivating a sense of resilience to combat these challenges is paramount. Bouncing back from setbacks and maintaining a positive mental attitude will help you carry out your responsibilities more effectively. 

Key takeaways from top skills to look for in in-house legal candidates 

To secure in-house legal roles, candidates must develop a diverse skill set that combines legal expertise, business acumen, and interpersonal skills. From hard legal attributes like contract negotiation to soft skills such as effective communication, ambitious candidates looking to break into in-house legal jobs must demonstrate a wide variety of skills to impress hiring managers.  

By honing these skills and staying abreast of industry trends, aspiring in-house Lawyers can position themselves as valuable assets to businesses seeking to navigate the legal complexities of today's business world. Embracing continuous learning, networking with industry peers, and demonstrating a commitment to excellence will undoubtedly pave the way for a successful and rewarding career in in-house law.

Specialists in legal recruitment 

As a market-leading recruitment agency with unmatched expertise in the legal sector, we are passionate about connecting outstanding talent with in-house legal jobs at organisations throughout the UK. Our experienced consultants are well-versed in the latest trends and developments affecting the legal recruitment space, using their expertise to provide exceptional guidance for jobseekers and companies alike. Guided by your preferences, we aim to match you with a fulfilling position that allows you to elevate your legal career. 

Get in touch today to discover more about how we can support you with your recruitment needs.