Recruiting and retaining in-house lawyers

In this article we explore ways to recruit and retain lawyers.

We look at what you, as the GC or recruiting lawyer, can do to attract and keep the best talent.

Recruiting in-house lawyers is more complex these days than it once was.

As well as new, varied and more complex demands for legal services across their organisations, General Counsel also have far more options open to them than ever before. 

Find and keep the best legal talent

Once upon a time, if you had a need (and the budget) for a new lawyer, you advertised in a legal publication or called your friendly legal recruiter. Job descriptions were straightforward and, once on board, lawyers rarely moved on.

No more. Today’s GC must assess the most efficient ways to get their organisation’s legal work done and it may not always involve recruiting. Alternatives to taking new people on include:

  • Flexible resourcing;
  • Greater use of technology to free up time for existing team members;
  • Outsourcing legal work or process; and
  • Restructuring workloads and offloading lower value work.

However, if you do opt to recruit a lawyer from outside the organisation, how do you give yourself the best chance of getting the person you need? And having done so, how do you retain them?

Recruiting lawyers – seven key points

1. Have a strategy

Never take recruiting lightly. It’s a major financial investment and you need to get it right. Consider what you’re trying to achieve in bringing in one or more new lawyers. Look at the strengths and weaknesses of your team and identify any skills gaps. Think too about succession planning – it’s rare these days for in-house lawyers to spend their entire career with one organisation.

2. Be clear about what you’re offering candidates

Why would a good candidate want to join your team or organisation? The role and benefits will, of course, be important but so too will factors such as the work itself, your organisation’s brand, reputation and culture and the legal team’s standing within it. A team or organisation recognised for its commitment to learning and development, inclusion, diversity and social responsibility may be attractive considerations for talented candidates.

3. Involve yourself in the hiring process

In most organisations, the HR functions have company-wide schemes and processes to ensure consistency and compliance. However, this doesn’t mean you have to opt out of the process completely. Instead, get involved by agreeing your hiring strategy and process and shaping information about the role.

4. Stick to plain English in job adverts and role profiles

Too much hyperbole, management speak or jargon will make your documents incomprehensible and turn candidates away. The best way to sell your organisation and the roles available is to keep things real and cut out meaningless phrases.

5. Target the right competencies

Does any organisation-wide framework accurately reflect what you and your internal clients need? While you will value critical thinking and good judgement, your clients may have a greater need for skills and behaviours such as clarity, teamwork, business acumen and project management.

6. Provide clarity

Your candidates will want to know where they’ll fit in. Explain to them the team structure, the reporting lines, who the key clients are and what they do. Set out the team’s responsibilities and how the role in question helps to meet them. In a wider context, talk about where the legal team sits in the organisation. Give as much information as you can.

7. Assess your applicants

A hiring process that’s overly complicated, too long, outdated or that inhibits diversity will reflect badly on you and your organisation. For your part, you’ll also want a process that gives you all the information about the candidates you need and promotes candidate buy-in. So, think about options other than the traditional CV, application form, and interview format. You could, for example:

  • Involve colleagues from the wider organisation for interview or Q&A sessions;
  • Use an external recruitment expert for part of the process – especially for senior roles;
  • Incorporate presentations and testing; and
  • Use profiling and insights tools.

Lawyer retention – another seven points

1. Again, have a strategy

Your retention strategy will depend partly on the size and role of your team. A sole lawyer will have different priorities to an international team of hundreds, however, it’ll be important to know what your priorities are and what strategies you’ll need.

You may, for example, need to develop skills to respond to changes in your business environment. Or maybe career and succession planning are greater priorities. The point, however, is to have a strategy for skills, competencies and wellbeing in the same way that you’ll have a strategy for providing legal services or responding to regulatory change.

2. Appoint good managers

While business teams are generally becoming flatter and individual autonomy is increasing, good managers are still important. They help build loyalty and commitment and develop smarter, happier and more efficient teams.

Not everyone wants to manage, however they can develop good management skills through appropriate training. Picking the right people for these roles is critical to the success of the legal team. By the same token, bad managers can have a catastrophic impact, so they’ll need to be challenged and dealt with.

3. Train and develop

Lawyers not only need to be qualified for the job in hand, they also want to know that they’ll have the opportunity to build on their skills and expertise. So, aside from any organisation-wide options, look for learning opportunities tailored to in-house lawyers.

You will, of course, need to maintain the legal expertise across your team, however business acumen, communication skills, project management and team working are also invaluable in a legal function. Make these part of the career development options for your in-house team.

4. Rotate roles and offer secondments

Many larger in-house teams see specialisation as a way to maximise their value to their organisation. However, this can conflict with the career ambitions and the development of individual lawyers, especially those who moved in-house to experience a broader role.

Consequently, you may need rotate roles and/or provide secondments to other areas of the organisation, or beyond, as part of your people strategy. This will enable lawyers to broaden their knowledge base and, ultimately, make a stronger contribution to the organisation. Over-specialisation can produce practice silos that weaken the overall strength and flexibility of the legal team, limit lawyers’ career options and undermine retention.

5. Provide coaching and mentoring

Many organisations now have coaching and mentoring programmes focused on career development. These offer excellent ways to broaden personal and business awareness and develop management skills. While access may be limited to high performers, any GC will want these options in their people development toolkit.

6. Grow your own

Traditionally, in-house lawyers began their careers in private practice before transferring in-house after a few years. This model is likely to continue but some larger in-house teams are now recruiting lawyers earlier in their careers, with some even providing training contracts. In this way, the in-house team can ‘grow’ their lawyers by developing their knowledge of the organisation and sector earlier in their career.

One disadvantage of this is that lawyers starting their careers in-house or moving in-house early, may not have less breadth of legal knowledge and experience than those with a few years of private practice under their belt. That said, many private practice lawyers now have to specialise very early in their careers.

7. Be clear about career development

New candidates and existing team members alike will want to know what their future development prospects look like, especially as the in-house career route is very different to that of private practice.

With in-house teams tending to have flat structures, there may be fewer management roles, but more opportunities to develop specific expertise or take up client-facing roles. Having a coherent development means being clear about what skills and competencies you need and how you’ll go about building them. Options include:

  • Traditional classroom training;
  • Online resources;
  • Developing management and people skills;
  • Coaching and mentoring;
  • Secondments; and
  • Organisation-wide initiatives.

A clear strategy for learning, development and career progression will help you get the very best from your existing team and attract the best candidates when you need to recruit. 


A recruitment and people development strategy is vital. Don’t wait for an emergency to arise before thinking about this – it’s far too important for that. Think about what you need in your lawyers and don’t slavishly follow company recruitment models if they don’t fit your needs. Liaise with your HR colleagues to get the solution you need. Similarly, look beyond traditional recruitment processes as there are many more ways today to meet resourcing needs. 

As for retention, provide a clear career development strategy that shows your lawyers how they need to develop and how you’ll support them throughout their career in your organisation. Again, look at alternatives to the traditional methods. 

Finally, remember it’s not just about hierarchies. Everyone likes to know that they’re progressing and what they need to do to reach the next stage of their career.