Career transitions for in-house lawyers and how to manage them

We’ve set out some common career transitions and look at the relevance of skills, values and motivations, mentors and career planning.

It’s easy to be too busy on the day job to spend time thinking about our career. But not thinking ahead can mean that we are not prepared for future opportunities when they arise. Thinking ahead can pay dividends by: -

  • Providing a structure to identify key skills that we want to develop and how we’ll do that; 
  • Uncovering our values and motivations and seeing how these translate into the context of our career; 
  • Helping us focus on increasing our network and identifying mentors; and 
  • Highlighting opportunities to progress our career in accordance with what matters to us. 

Of course, our organisations may provide much of these under their people and personal development policies. But these are often tailored to the needs of the organisation and there is merit in developing a personal plan that fits our own needs. 

Career Transitions

During an in-house legal career, there are typically a number of key transitions that could affect and influence the direction our career takes. It’s unlikely we’ll encounter all of them, but it may be helpful to consider each in a little more detail.

1. Moving in-house
While some lawyers do train and qualify in-house, the majority of in-house lawyers move from private practice. As we’ve explored elsewhere, you will inevitably notice some differences on moving in-house. You will also be expected to develop and exhibit a wide range of legal, business and people skills. The change can take time to assimilate, although a previous in-house secondment is likely to help in knowing what to expect. We learn new skills as our career develops although having a disposition to learning and adopting a proactive mindset will prove useful from outset.

2. Specialist or generalist? 
Some in-house lawyers find that there’s limited scope to focus on a narrow specialism in-house, although the opportunity to be more of a generalist and take on new areas may have been a key incentive in moving in-house in the first place. This is not to say that, particularly in larger or more specialist teams, there are opportunities to develop a legal specialism as a subject-matter expert. There are pros and cons to this, depending on how we see your career progressing. Subject-experts can be highly valued and are important to the contribution and credibility of the legal function. At the same time, in-house practice can be fluid as organisations change and adapt and we will not want to be a specialist without a role. Balance and good career planning are often key here.

3. Managing people
For many, this can be the first stage in a move to a more senior legal role. Our legal skills, particularly in relation to listening, client care, advising and providing solutions, provide a good grounding for management. At the same time, good managers understand the importance of developing their management skills through training and reflection. Many organisations provide excellent management training and, on the job, learning opportunities. There are different management styles and the best managers learn how to incorporate different approaches. For those ambitious for a GC or other senior role, it’s worth remembering that they’ll be assessed on their ability to lead and deliver results through others, rather than their legal skills alone. 

4. Managing a legal function
As well as managing people in a team, we may become responsible for managing a business unit or perhaps the entire legal function. This generally only happens when we have a good deal of experience (although not always). It can be a big step in terms of responsibility and expectations and also because we become the focus for both the team and our clients who look to us to perform as a leader – something which requires you to exhibit a range of skills beyond being just a good lawyer. The transition will be helped if we have already developed a learning mindset and have built a strong network of support and relationships within, and beyond, the organisation.

5. Becoming a sole lawyer
As more organisations see the benefits of having their own in-house lawyer, opportunities are opening up in newer organisations and start-ups in, particularly, the tech sector. The attraction lies in being the chief lawyer and being close to the business planning and operations in an expanding organisation and sector. There are challenges, of course. For example, the lack of legal colleagues to bounce advice and ideas off; the potential lack of understanding among business colleagues about the value of an in-house lawyer beyond reducing legal spend; and the fact that every possible legal query (and others beside) is likely to hit the lawyer’s inbox. A clear message about the purpose of the legal function, articulating value in ways that the organisation understands, a strong external network and mentor(s), and strong personal skills and resilience are likely to be of great benefit in such a role.

6. Number 1 or Number 2?
For those who become GCs or head a legal team, they may not have aspired to these roles in their early career. Rather, they built their skills and expertise in other roles (say, leading a smaller team), seeking or taking opportunities to move to bigger roles as their career progressed. Others may decide that they don’t want that GC or Head of role but that other factors relating to the type of work they do and knowing where their strengths and interests lie, lead them to seek out other roles. The point here is that not all roads lead to being a GC and that there are many interesting and fulfilling in-house roles regardless of management hierarchies. Knowing where our strengths and ambitions lie can be invaluable in mapping your career steps and changes. Our mentors, advisers and psychometric tools can all help us uncover these.

7. Moving on
At some point we may want, or need, to consider seeking a different role in the legal team or moving to a different organisation. Roles change, organisations expand and merge, and opportunities accordingly open up and close down. We cannot avoid these changes but having a good updated career plan, being clear about our values and motivations, having a well-rounded skill set, having access to a strong support network and, at least for some, a willingness to embrace new opportunities when we don’t know how it will turn out, can all really help to navigate a career path which is rarely, if ever, a straight one. 

8. Beyond the law
At some point in our career, we may be looking at a non-lawyer role. This could be for a number of reasons – an opportunity arises in our organisation or we decide that we want to make this change. The role may be closely aligned to our previous role – say in legal ops or legal tech, in compliance or regulation. Or it may be a mainstream business role, say as the CEO of a not for profit. Whatever the reason, the broad skills developed as an in-house lawyer, including those wider business and inter-personal skills, should provide an excellent grounding to pursue other roles. And getting experience in such broader roles perhaps as a NED or Trustee, while a lawyer, will really help broaden our relevant skills.

Skills, values and motivations  

Skills

In this context, skills denote our expertise in particular areas of the law and also our personal skills that allow us to communicate, persuade, influence and be seen as a trusted business partner by our colleagues. Here are some key skills in this context: -

  • A broad and deep understanding of the law relating to the main aspects of the organisation’s business. It may seem that, sometimes, we’re expected to be an expert in pretty much any legal issue that arises. This is not possible, of course, although we will need to be flexible, able to tackle new or developing areas. 
  • Good judgement and being seen as someone who can identify and focus on business priorities and deliver results. This is often about understanding properly the organisational context in which our legal advice is given and is based on a good understanding of how the organisation operates and of its challenges and opportunities. 
  • Well-developed people skills. There will be an emphasis on being a good communicator, verbally and in writing, being a good listener and being able to persuade others to a particular view or course of action. We will also be expected to manage well (if we hold a management post) and be a good collaborator, able to work across the organisation (and perhaps beyond) with others to achieve results. 
  • Our personal qualities. These are not so much skills as behaviours we learn and exhibit in our work and in our dealings with others. Key amongst these are resilience, the ability to confront and overcome challenges and emotional intelligence as exhibited in being empathetic and remaining calm under pressure.

These skills and qualities are all things to be learned and developed as our career progresses. Our organisations will often help us to develop them, but we can also look for opportunities to test ourselves in different environments.

Values and motivation 

Our values are about what matters to us and how we express these in a work or career context. It’s likely to be a long list because we probably value many things and some will be more important than others.

In the context of our career, there are certain values that will be particularly important to us, for example, community, influence, recognition, learning, co-operation, trust, control and efficiency. 

For in-house lawyers, common motivators are likely to include the contribution we want to make, which might be as simple as wanting to be in a role that contributes to the success of the business/organisation or it might influence the type of organisation we work for. 

In-house lawyers often have a strong motivation to develop their knowledge and skills, both technical and inter-personal. This may make organisations with strong training and development programmes attractive, as well as influence us to seek learning opportunities outside the organisation.

For many, their work environment is a strong motivator. This may relate to where we work (London, a big city, internationally, for example), the physical work place and the culture of the organisation. 

Our motivations also influence the type of role we apply for. For some, becoming a GC may be the goal, whereas others may perceive themselves in a more supportive role, or as a subject expert in their field. Others may see their legal career as a stepping stone to a wider business career or to something more entrepreneurial.

We cannot divorce our career motivations from those that impact our lives generally. These lifestyle factors will influence such things as pay and rewards, where we live and work and our work-life balance.

It’s not always easy to unpick our career values and motivations, particularly in isolation. We will often need support from such as line managers, mentors, and career professionals to help us, particularly if we are considering a career change. It’s also worth remembering that what was important to us at one stage of our career, will potentially change over time. 

Networks and mentors 

As well as our skills, values and motivations, two other factors that can have a strong practical influence on our career path and development are our networks and mentors.

The fact that we know lots of people in our organisation or in the legal sector does not mean that we have a strong career network. Whilst social media platforms such as LinkedIn can help build large networks, they can be passive rather than active. A strong career network is one made up of people who we are in a position to support and help us and vice versa. 

In career terms this may mean making referrals, passing on opportunities and sharing our knowledge and experience. A strong network can be invaluable at times of planned, or unplanned, career transition as it will be made up of people who are in a position to help us and are often only too happy to do so, where they can. Whilst many of us develop our networks more by accident than design, taking the time and effort to build a strong network can have an important bearing on our career.

Similarly, having good mentors is important. Our line manager is often able to mentor us, a relationship that may continue after the line manager relationship has ended. But it also pays to look beyond a good line manager for mentoring. Many organisations have mentoring programmes where we can gain experience of being mentored and perhaps mentoring others. And our wider network will likely include people who may be happy to mentor us at a challenging time, or generally.

As well as mentoring, consider also the value of coaches and sponsors. Coaching is more focused on achieving defined goals and outcomes. Sponsors are those within an organisation who take an interest in helping promote our career ambitions, becoming your effective ‘champion’.