Career planning for in-house lawyers - strategies

We look at strategies that you can employ to navigate this changing environment.

With new technologies affecting supposedly change-proof roles, including those in professional services, not to mention ‘change as usual’ driven by business competition and regulatory developments, the world of work is uncertain. 

There’s no job for life anymore and flexible and portfolio working and the gig economy are on the rise. So how do you plan your future? 

Why career planning is important

With roles becoming more transitory for various reasons, career planning means more than having the right skills to carry out a role (or roles) with one organisation or even in one sector or industry.

Consequently, while many organisations provide excellent training opportunities for their lawyers, either through company-wide or bespoke schemes, it’s increasingly important for lawyers to develop their own personal career plan that takes account of changing needs, wants and expectations. This requires a more pro-active approach.

Here are some ways to achieve this.

1. A personal development plan (PDP)

Performance management processes in organisations often use a career or personal development plan of one kind or another. The purpose is to provide a structure for employees to set career goals and objectives along with accompanying learning and development needs and to measure performance against agreed targets. They focus on skills and competencies relevant to your role and cover learning and development across technical and interpersonal skills.

The plan should also encourage you to identify and pursue career objectives beyond your current role. You’ll need to assess how you can achieve these objectives and what learning and development steps you’ll need to take to position yourself as the ideal candidate for a future role. Goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely).

Many continuing professional development (CPD) schemes (like the SRA scheme) now embrace continuing competency requirements. These offer greater scope for lawyers to set and meet relevant learning and development goals. These schemes can sit alongside, or form part of, a career development plan, recognising also the value of softer, non-technical skills in demonstrating competence.

2. Feedback

A good career plan needs good feedback. Under formal, organisational processes, you’ll get feedback from your line manager on strengths, weaknesses and development opportunities. You may also get input from clients and other colleagues to provide an even more rounded view. Many legal teams use processes to ensure that the team and individual lawyers are getting regular, constructive feedback.

Don’t be afraid to seek out feedback, from inside and outside the workplace, as this allows us to test our perceptions of ourselves. It also provides a platform for developing existing skills and learning new ones by highlighting those that are most important to others in carrying out a particular role.

Remember also that getting feedback shouldn’t end once you achieve a senior position. In fact, the greater your responsibility the more important it is that you don’t rely solely on self-assessment. Senior managers often seek feedback, in addition to formal and informal requirements, so that boards can be subject to review and assessment. One example of this is a 360 degree performance review.

Many organisations also use psychometric and profiling tools to assess the aptitudes and competencies of recruitment candidates and existing employees, for example on executive selection and team building. These tools can highlight areas for individual development.

3. Coaching and mentoring

Some organisations provide formal mentoring programmes where you can benefit from a relationship with an experienced colleague (often outside of your own department).

Working with a mentor will allow you to discuss both work and personal matters and get a different perspective on career issues and challenges. And the value isn’t just in being the mentee. Many people volunteer to be mentors under workplace or external schemes as it allows them to develop valuable skills – listening and giving feedback to name but two.

Coaching is a more formal process, often focused on targeted outcomes. As part of the process, the coachee will be challenged to look at their behaviours and attitudes in working towards agreed goals.

It can be a powerful and rewarding experience, benefiting the coachee beyond the achievement of their goals. Unsurprisingly, executive coaching schemes are increasingly popular. Even if you don’t have access to a coaching scheme, consider whether working with a coach would benefit you in building self-awareness and achieving your career goals.

4. Learning outside the workplace

Developing skills and knowledge is not, of course, confined to the workplace. It’s now widely recognised that gaining experience outside our ‘career roles’ is a great way to acquire new skills and knowledge. So, for example, becoming a charity trustee or non-executive director can provide you with board and financial experience that you don’t get in your daily role.

Similarly, you may develop team working and innovation skills that you didn’t think you had. Such is the value of these experiences in developing future leaders that organisations now encourage them through their CSR and sustainability programmes and provide the flexibility to encourage participation. So, even if your employer doesn’t operate a formal scheme, it may well allow you time out of the workplace to pursue such activity.

5. New roles and secondments

As your career develops you may get the opportunity to move into a different role or location within your organisation. The larger the in-house team, the more options you’re likely to have. Given that many in-house teams have flat management structures where opportunities for promotion are limited, providing fresh career challenges is important in developing new skills and expertise and retaining high performers.

Another option could be a secondment, either within your organisation (say, if legal is co-located with multiple business units or in different locations), or with a partner law firm to gain different experience.

This can be a useful way to develop expertise in a particular sector and be of real value to both you and your organisation. Other alternatives include schemes that build relationships between the civil service and business and promote secondment opportunities. One provider of such schemes is the Whitehall & Industry Group.

6. Marketing yourself and networking

There are numerous options available to lawyers who want to build their skills and raise their profile, internally and externally.

Internally it’s common for legal teams to be involved in training and development programmes for their non-legal colleagues and for in-house lawyers to be part of project teams working on business initiatives.

These offer useful opportunities to develop wider business skills and get you known to a wider audience in your organisation. Externally, you could become recognised as a specialist by speaking at events and writing articles and blogs on particular topics, including via social media business platforms. These platforms also allow you to keep your professional profile up to date and relevant.

And it’s not just about profile. Using social media and more traditional platforms to build your network can help develop new relationships and open up new opportunities.

7. Changing values and interests

Career planning is not just about skills, of course. While it’s important to identify skills and learning relevant to your current and future roles, factor in values, interests, contribution and your environment, too. And remember, these may change over time and in the light of life events.

While there’s pressure to perform in every role, career planning should also take account of these changes as they can play an important part in career direction and satisfaction. A good PDP and management process will allow you to talk about what matters to you and explore ways in which your role can adapt to changes.

Of course, sometimes values and interests change to such an extent that you may want to consider working in a different role or organisation. This is where a relationship with a mentor, coach or career adviser can provide the important space to talk openly about changing the direction or emphasis of your career.

8. Moving on

Any career plan for an in-house lawyer must recognise that, at some point, you may need to leave the organisation. Flat management structures limit opportunities for promotion and organisations are subject to change because of takeovers, mergers, restructures or outsourcing. So, whether of your own volition, or for reasons beyond your control, you do need to factor in life outside your organisation.

This is where your PDP and network can really pay dividends for you. If you’ve thought about and articulated your achievements and skills to make clear what you can do and what you have to offer, you’re already well placed to consider new options. Add to this a good reputation, a high profile and a strong network and you’ll be well placed in relation to the competition.

Remember also the value of professional input. A specialist career coach or recruitment adviser may help you identify and maximise your strengths, particularly if you’re at a career crossroads and considering a change of industry, or even career. 


Career planning has never been more important. There will always be unexpected twists and turns in your career path and none of us know how certain sectors and industries will change in the future. Add to this the range of legal, business and interpersonal skills that in-house lawyers are now expected to display in their roles and it’s clear why we need to be pro-active in our learning and development.

Make full use of organisational and professional schemes and processes and look at ways to build relevant skills in other environments. Build your reputation and network and look at how you articulate your achievements and what you have to offer.

Finally, don’t forget what matters to you – your values and interests, and the contribution you wish to make and where.