Getting out of in-house law

You’re an in-house lawyer who has decided or been forced to review your options. This situation can arise at different points in an in-house career and for different reasons. As a result, you may be considering moving out of a legal role altogether. Whatever your circumstances, this article will highlight some issues you may wish to consider.

Career decisions are always challenging and can be stressful. It’s helpful to know that your situation is not unique, that you have options and that guidance is available to you.

You may be considering re-evaluating your career because:

  • You’re disillusioned with the law;
  • There’s little or no chance of career progression;
  • Your role is redundant;
  • You’re considering a move into general management; or
  • You’ve had a long in-house career and you want something new.

Let’s look at these scenarios seperately and consider your options.

You’re disillusioned with the law

First of all, identify why you’re unhappy. Common causes of disillusionment among in-house lawyers include:

  • Constant firefighting without sufficient resources;
  • Hostile reactions to your advice and ideas unless they support your colleagues’ agendas or tow the company line;
  • Doing ever less legal work and ever more proof reading, grammar correction, project management or people management;
  • Being seen only as a cost centre;
  • Being the sole company lawyer with no likeminded colleagues or 'legal' support.
  • Lack of recognition.

If you’re a junior lawyer, maybe the role isn’t what you imagined. If you’re more experienced, you may be wondering if the grass is greener back in private practice or away from the law altogether.

It’s normal to experience some discontent in your career and the above scenarios may all arise at different times. However, if the situation endures, you’re bound to get disillusioned. And remember that if you’re really concerned about your professional independence, speak with your boss, another senior colleague or your professional regulator.

In any event, don’t panic. Speak to people you trust and take professional advice from an experienced career or recruitment coach who will talk you through your options. It may be that simply adjusting your role or even just the way you do things could make a big difference. However, it is equally possible that a bigger change is needed like moving to another organisation, into private practice or to something different altogether. Don't be afraid of this - just make sure that you start with a frank and realistic assessment of the skills and experiences that you have. You may be surprised to discover how many transferable skills you posess!

There’s little or no chance of career progression

Many organisations and legal teams have flat management structures. If you’ve set your heart on becoming a Head of Legal or a General Counsel you may find the opportunities at your organisation limited. The in-house profession has grown a lot in recent years, particularly at the junior and mid-levels, but the number of senior roles has not increased at the same rate. The incumbent may not be about to move on or retire any time soon and you may fear you’re becoming stale in your role. You could look for a step up in another organisation, but you’re concerned that the grass might not really be greener, particularly in today’s uncertain economic and political environment.

Providing career development opportunities for in-house lawyers beyond the traditional hierarchical structure is a major challenge for General Counsel. New responsibilities and rotating roles should be part of the mix, together with internal or external secondments, where appropriate. Trade and professional bodies and trustee/non-executive director (NED) roles also provide opportunities to expand skills and networks. And, of course, individual lawyers should be in charge of their own career development and look for opportunities to improve their skills.

If you’re set on that senior role but believe it’s looking distant, you may need to reappraise your career. Again, use your network, coaches and mentors to give you honest feedback about your strengths and weaknesses and to help you to spot and apply for opportunities for which you have a realistic prospect of success. Psychometric tests may be useful here and your boss and HR department should be providing career feedback as part of the normal appraisal/career development process. Be brutally honest about whether a senior legal role is for you as it won’t suit everyone;  there is not a lot of law but an awful lot of everything else in most top roles. If you decide not to pursue a senior role, consider whether you want to continue as a lawyer or look for other opportunities. Again, getting good feedback and professional guidance here is vital.

Your role is redundant

Organisations change. In the commercial sector, they’re subject to intense competition, mergers and takeovers and a regular reordering of CEOs and senior management.

Restructures, reorganisations, outsourcing, insourcing and off-boarding can seem like business as usual but, the more senior you are, the more vulnerable you can be during organisational change. Consequently, you may find yourself looking for a new role several times during your career. It’s nice to think that we can anticipate these changes and act accordingly, but it isn't always possible

Redundancy, especially the first time round, can come as a shock and blow to your ego. It may seem unjustified and unfair., but it’s rarely personal. Remember, it’s the role, not the person, that’s redundant. Senior roles and managements change with increasing regularity as new CEOs look to build their own teams.

Unless you’re able to transition straight into another role, take advantage of any corporate outplacement programmes on offer. They provide a great opportunity to reassess your career and decide what you want to do next.

It may be your first opportunity to really appraise your career and assess where you are in the wider context of your life. Take the opportunity to speak to those who've been through the process as their experience may be valuable to you.

Many people have used redundancy as a launch pad for completely new ventures in their careers. Others have seen it as an opportunity to move into related, but different roles.

You’re considering a move into general management

Many senior in-house lawyers reach the point where they consider moving away from a legal role into a general management or other role in an organisation. If you’re a General Counsel, you may be attracted to another C-suite role, perhaps as a Corporate Director or Chief Operations Officer. However, you may be feel it’s a once-and-for-all decision from which there’s no returning. This reticence could explain the lack of lawyers as CEOs or in other senior business roles. Alternatively, you may be looking at a judicial or quasi-judicial post, for example as a judge or an ombudsman.

Moving out of the law into a general management role can seem a daunting prospect. You’ve spent years building your legal skills and experience and you're worried that they’ll become irrelevant if you’re not in a legal role, perhaps ending any prospect of returning to a senior legal role in the future.

Your professional identity is bound up with being a lawyer and you’re reluctant to let that go. In practice, of course, many General Counsel find that, as they became more senior, they devote less time to legal work and get more involved in general business, management and organisational issues. However, the skills that made you a senior lawyer won’t disappear. Understanding, measuring and balancing legal risks and using your negotiation skills are necessary in any senior role. And, if you aspire to become CEO, you will need to move out of your legal role and gain wider business experience first.

So, don’t be afraid to covet other C-suite roles. Speak to your trusted advisers about making this transition and seek professional guidance. Don’t forget about opportunities to widen your skill-set by taking on roles inside and outside your organisation, for example, by becoming a NED, a charitable trustee, running trade groups or other functions, major projects or subsidiaries in your business. Taking a relevant professional qualification such as an MBA can also help by giving you relevant experience and by demonstrating your willingness to develop professionally to senior colleagues.

You’ve had a long in-house career and you now want something new

After a long career you may want to utilise your skills and experience in a different role. You don’t want to retire but nor do you want to climb the corporate ladder or repeat former glories. You’ve a strong network but it may seem like others are counting down to 'retirement'.

You want to use your business skills and experience, yet focus on what's important to you at this stage of your life and career. You want to use your strong network, business skills and experience, yet focus on what's important to you at this stage of your life and career. In looking back you’ll identify certain themes that you found particularly rewarding in your in-house career. For example:

  • The intellectual challenge of the law and the reward of applying it in an organisational context to achieve wider goals and objectives;
  • Collaborating with legal and business colleagues to achieve shared ambitions;
  • Being an expert in your field but also learning new skills;
  • Managing a team and mentoring colleagues as part of their development;
  • Communicating unfamiliar and sometimes complex themes to colleagues in a precise and concise manner.

The legal and business skills you’ve acquired and the emotional intelligence you’ve demonstrated in carrying out your in-house roles should make you an attractive candidate, whatever you decide to do next. However, the biggest challenge may be in adjusting to your new role. as you’ve invested a working lifetime in your achievements. Don’t underestimate how difficult this may be; moving on can be unsettling. Speak to those who’ve been through the experience and understand what’s involved and continue to network. Speaking to a mentor, coach, friend, colleague or careers adviser can be a great help in clarifying your objectives. You’ll find people are interested and supportive.

Once you’ve decided what really matters to you now, you’ll probably find yourself in demand. Organisations across the private, public and third sectors are always looking for people with business, management and leadership skills and good knowledge of the law.

However, be ready to sell your services in a different and more flexible way than you’re used to.

Above all else remember that you own your career. You'll  want to be able to look back in five, ten and 20 years from now and say "I made the best that I could of my roles, I am happy with what I have done and, mostly, it could not have gone much better!"

Conclusion

There are many reasons why you may be thinking of moving out of in-house law, or law altogether. Sometimes you may just need a change of scene to recharge your batteries. Don’t be afraid to reappraise what you want and where you're heading. Widening your skill set by working in different roles and, perhaps, organisations will make you increasingly valuable. And, if you have ambitions beyond being a General Counsel, you may well benefit from acquiring experience in other C-suite roles. Whatever your circumstances, if you're seriously considering a move away from the law, get good advice from trusted friends, colleagues, mentors, coaches and other professional advisers.