Dr Apostolos Gkoutzinis (LLM Banking and Finance 2000 and PhD 2004)
We interviewed Dr Apostolos Gkoutzinis about his opinions on the differences between working in a “big law firm” and being an in-house lawyer. Apostolos is currently a Partner at Milbank in London.
Not long ago, becoming a partner at a big law firm was the aim of the majority of law school graduates. Do you think this is changing now, with lawyers instead setting their sights on in-house legal departments?
I am not sure this is true and, in any event, it is difficult to generalize about career goals. Each student, each young lawyer, will follow the path they are passionate about and they will be practical about career opportunities, financial rewards and promotion prospects. As well as what drives and motivates them. Law firms are, and will always be, the principal training ground for young aspiring lawyers and the starting point of most legal careers. I cannot imagine any major in-house legal department recruiting new lawyers except through experienced law firms. I don’t think it is a question of “either/or”. Most leaders in in-house legal departments have been very successful lawyers, partners even, with law firms prior to moving in-house.
In-house legal departments are often thought of as more diverse and dynamic than traditional law firms. Do you think this might make them more attractive to graduates?
Again, I am not on a mission to be a “contrarian” but I actually happen not to agree with the statement that in-house legal departments are more diverse and dynamic than the traditional law firms. Law firms, or at least the two law firms I have known from the inside, are incredibly diverse and dynamic. Nevertheless, in-house legal departments can also be incredibly attractive. They are often part of the company’s business team, working on interesting projects. It all depends on how they are run, how integrated they are with the rest of the business, and what the corporate culture expects of them. Some in-house legal departments are exceptionally good; some are adequate; and, certainly, some of them are really bad places to work, full of politics, lack of career progression and poorly respected by the rest of the organisation.
Big Law firms are still prestigious and snap up many LLM graduates. How are companies able to compete and attract law graduates to come in-house?
Most companies recruit experienced associates and partners from law firms. Few, if any, would recruit directly from university (although I am not an expert on recent recruitment trends and I have never been an in-house lawyer). The quality of the business interaction, the company’s brand, the ability to be promoted quickly and move up the organization, the stability of the working day (away from the intensity of law firm practice) seem to be good reasons to go in-house to the right legal team.
In what ways do in-house legal jobs differ from careers at law firms?
In-house roles are tied to one client: the company the lawyer works for. The sole aim and purpose of the in-house lawyer is to promote the interests of that company. Everything else is subordinate to this main purpose. Law firms work for many clients and lawyers in law firms work for many clients on different projects. Many differences result from this distinction. Law firms compete for clients; in-house lawyers do not face this competition. The work-life balance issue is tied to this fundamental difference: a law firm lawyer needs to satisfy the client before he or she gets another mandate. It’s that simple. In-house lawyers are assessed on their overall performance.
Do you think there any downsides to working in house?
I cannot speak from my personal experience, as I have never worked in-house, but many of my friends have worked in-house and for some it has been a good experience while for others it has not. This is the same for anyone working in a law firm or in any other sector. I would strongly advise any young lawyer reading this to consider that, in the end, personal and intellectual contentment always comes from being conscientious and useful to those employing you, wherever you are. Therein lies the meaning of career satisfaction. The rest is detail.