How can in-house teams create an effective development and retention programme?

Working in-house can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable of legal careers – but in many organisations it isn’t always clear how lawyers can develop and progress.

It is easy to become frustrated, to feel that you need to move organisations to progress – and for teams to lose dedicated and talented people because they don’t see an obvious career progression.

Development and retention in-house

While there are very substantial in-house teams, they tend to be smaller than law firms – and crucially, there may not appear to be the structured career development options which people may see in a firm. There isn’t, for example, likely to be a regular annual round of partner-equivalent appointments, and the senior team in-house may well stay in place for many years.

At the same time, dynamic in-house teams will understand the need to provide effective career development for their staff – and to ensure that they retain key people for the future.

Organisations tend to change more quickly than perhaps law firms would – they grow, develop new business streams, open in new geographies, form new partnerships or joint ventures, merge and operate in new ways. All of these activities require legal skills and resources, and the in-house legal team will not only need to respond but can see them as an opportunity for team members to grow and develop their careers.

An effective development and retention programme has many features, which might include some or all of the following:


Most in-house teams are consistently busy – and so when they recruit, there is almost certainly an immediate need for someone to carry out the role. That brings with it the temptation to recruit someone who can simply immediately carry out the work required. However, that is almost always a mistake if you want to have an effective development and retention programme.

Consider what the recruit’s next role – and the one after that – will be.

  • Can they step up?
  • Will they stay with you or leave after a couple of years leaving you with another recruitment issue?
  • Do they have the potential to develop?

Recruitment is probably the most important element of a development and retention programme – if you recruit the right people in the first place, it is much easier to build on that for development and retention.

Personal Development

It’s common for organisations to have an annual appraisal or personal development review, and for that to include some form of personal development programme. That is a useful starting point – but looking at it once or twice a year is of little real value. There should be a dynamic personal development plan for everyone in the team, reviewed regularly with the individual’s line manager, and if the organisation has one, the learning and development team.

The aim is to ensure that everyone has – and carries out – focused development activities which allow them to do their current role more effectively, and to develop skills which will help them to prepare for their next and future roles.

Using the organisation’s development programmes

Many organisations of any scale will have their own formal development programmes – they may be called leadership programmes, talent programmes, or even an in-house MBA.

Surprisingly often, in-house lawyers tend not to be encouraged to join them because they are seen as business-specific. That is a real shame, as typically lawyers can learn a great deal from them, and also contribute to them as well as developing relationships with their peers through the programmes.

Legal-specific programmes

Equally, though, there are legal-specific skills which you will need people to develop – and also perhaps specialist legal skills specific to your organisation or sector which you will wish to ensure lawyers learn and develop. Your organisation may have a matrix of skills which it expects people to have at particular grades – why not consider adapting that for your legal needs?

PQE-related progression

PQE-related progression is one of the most difficult issues for in-house professional teams – whether lawyers or other professionals working in-house.

Typically, a lawyer working in a law firm will expect their pay to increase exponentially as they gain experience, certainly from qualification to five - or ten years qualification. In many organisations, though, it’s only possible to increase pay through a change in role, or through annual reviews which may well be limited to a defined, and relatively modest, level reflecting general pay inflation. That can mean that the junior professional – who may have been recruited at a reasonable salary level – soon finds that their pay falls behind their peers, and if not addressed, will simply move organisations to progress.

If you are managing a legal team, this is unhelpful as you may find that your key people leave when you can least afford to part with them. It may feel like a hard conversation, but an open discussion with management and HR teams should be able to create a structure where there is an expectation of PQE-related salary progression more akin to that in a law firm, subject obviously to satisfactory performance and professional growth.

You may well find that the additional cost of such progression is more than covered by the reduction in recruitment costs, loss of know-how and cost of covering vacant roles which you would otherwise incur.

Creating talent pools

One of the purposes of annual development appraisals or reviews ought to be to spot key talent – people who can progress within the organisation and be its future leaders.

This is no less true in legal than in any other function. If you run a legal team, who do you expect to step up and take more senior roles in future, to cover vacancies or expansion, and to succeed you? Have you told them that you see a future for them – and how you expect to work with them to prepare? It is an important part of any leader’s role to ensure that they have created a pool of talent. In many organisations, the HR and learning and development functions will be only too pleased to help you to do this.

Creating development roles

Most in-house teams are carefully structured around functional or organisational lines, and it might appear to team members that they can only progress if someone else moves on. That can be discouraging for them – and they might simply choose to leave, even without discussing whether it’s the case.

Consider, though, whether that is the only option – or whether it is possible to create development roles for people to learn and develop where you want to retain a particular person. These might be roles such as acting or interim positions, perhaps to cover a maternity leave or someone else’s development move, project roles (of which more in a moment) or assistant or chief-of-staff roles to the General Counsel or their Deputy.

Clearly, the role needs to be justifiable and to serve a purpose in the organisation, but it is entirely proper for it also to have a key role in preparing the individual for their next role.

Alternative moves, secondments and project roles

As with other development roles, the aim is not only to ensure that the organisation meets a particular role need but also that the individual has an opportunity to develop new and different skills – perhaps managing others, perhaps dealing with board members, customers or regulators, which they would not be able to develop in their own role.

It is not uncommon for an individual to be appointed to a senior in-house legal role with little or no business, management or significant people management experience – and equally not uncommon for them to struggle with their appointment, or even fail, for no fault of their own.

As with any specialism, detailed legal knowledge is helpful for that specialism, but it does not of itself equip the individual with the ability to operate effectively at senior level. Moves into the business, secondments – perhaps even to customers or key relationship organisations – or project roles, perhaps for a key acquisition or disposal – can be transformational.

Exposure and shadowing

If the objectives of the development programme include helping the team member to learn how to operate in a more senior role, it can be very useful for them to have greater exposure within the business, and the opportunity to understand how the team – and the business – works. Your induction programme may already include the chance for people to shadow more senior people, but formally planning how they are introduced to key people within the organisation, and to shadow others to understand their business can be very effective.

Not only can the individual learn a great deal, but their exposure to others can also mean that they gain supporters within the organisation outside the legal team, they increase the reach and influence of legal, and when new opportunities arise, there is a much greater chance that they are easily assimilated and accepted into a senior role. You – and they – can also use the process to gather valuable feedback about them and their engagement with the process, and perhaps also in a 360-degree feedback review.

Coaching and mentoring

Your organisation may already have formal or informal coaching or mentoring arrangements, and both can be a useful part of the development programme. If development needs are identified, targeted coaching can be really helpful, while a relationship with a mentor outside the management line can allow the individual to start to understand how to put the various elements of development together.

Learning and Development

Many organisations will have a learning and development function, either within HR or as a separate specialism, and that can be very useful in helping an individual develop their development programme.

It should be emphasised, though, that if the individual is to develop their full potential, they must take ownership of the programme themselves, so that they are developing themselves rather than simply expecting to be developed. The resilience and initiative which they develop will be crucial for their senior roles.

Formal qualifications

You may wish to consider whether your development and retention plans include allowing key individuals to undertake relevant formal qualifications – for example, a diploma or Master’s degree in a relevant specialism, an MBA to build their business knowledge and give them the same vocabulary as their business clients, or a specialist qualification such as that of the Chartered Governance Institute for those team members who may need to operate in governance, secretariat or compliance roles.

While there is a cost to all these arrangements, they are likely to ensure retention of the individual during the course and to build key skills directly relevant to the current and future role.

Technology, Innovation and Legal Ops

In considering what alternative moves or roles might be relevant, one of the options to consider might be technology, innovation or legal operations. What can be learnt which will assist the individual and the legal team? Could the team member project manage the introduction of new legal tech or a legal quality assurance programme? In doing so, can they also interact with and learn from the organisation’s own expertise in related areas such as IT or strategy?

Logging Learning

One tool which many people find helpful is to keep a learning log of their development to record how they work against their development plan, the things they learn which are helpful for them in their present and future roles – and the things they learn which have not gone well, or identify a need for further development. The self-reflection which this promotes, again, is crucial for the transition to senior roles.

Paying for development

It might be felt that most of the elements suggested in this section cost money, and in the context of the difficulties in funding law in-house, are difficult to afford. If you feel this is the case, it is well worth assessing the cost against the relative cost of taking no action.

The real cost of allowing key individuals to leave, and factoring in the expense of a recruitment exercise, recruitment fees, the additional cost of covering absence and induction arrangements, the likely additional cost of increased salaries for replacements, and the related expenses can be very significant, and give no real return.

The GC’s responsibilities

In virtually every organisation, a General Counsel or Chief Legal Officer can only function through other members of their team, but how they do this can vary greatly.

Some are hands-on, taking every opportunity to communicate and interact with members of the legal team; others prefer to operate through their management teams alone. Much will be down to personal preference, but it’s important to understand that people stay with organisations for a complex range of reasons – and their decision to leave can be equally difficult.

If individual team members – even at junior level – feel they know, and are valued by, the GC as well as their line managers, and that their development and retention are important to them, they are much more likely to stay.

Objectives, outcomes and measurement

An effective development and retention programme will have clearly understood objectives – which may be expressed as part of the legal team’s overall strategy and will be appreciated and accepted by the team members concerned. The individual – and the senior legal team – should understand what outcomes are desired, how they will be achieved, and how they will be measured – and they should be openly communicated and logged.

Designing and implementing an effective programme is not easy – and is something that requires constant and dynamic review – but the work will be amply repaid in terms of the performance of the legal team, the loyalty of individual team members, the return on the investment of time and cost to the organisation, and the reputation of the legal team.

Further reading
I’m in mid-career – should I move organisations to progress?