Moving on up - what are the options?

You’ve reached a senior legal position in your career, so may be considering your next move. Do you want another legal role or are you considering something else?

This article looks at some of the more obvious alternative roles and what you may need to do to secure them. 

There’s no need to feel that your successful legal career to date restricts you to pursuing legal-only roles in the future. You may have ambitions to move into a C-suite role but be unsure of what skills you'll need to be a credible candidate.

Where next for the accomplished senior in-house lawyer? 

As a lawyer with good business experience you may aspire to the role of Head of Legal or General Counsel. Or, if you've reached this level, you may consider a similar role in a different organisation, perhaps in a different sector. 

Alternatively, you may be attracted to a non-legal position where you can utilise your skills and experience in a different type of role. If so, you have a wide range of options. Let’s look at some of these, along with any new or complementary skills you may need to acquire. 

Chief Risk Officer and Chief Compliance Officer 

Particularly in heavily regulated industries such as financial services and pharmaceuticals, the separate roles of Chief Risk Officer (CRO) and Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) are increasingly commonplace.

There are some overlaps with the legal function as Legal will also be concerned with risk and compliance. However, CROs and CCOs focus on specific operational responsibilities relating to risk management and compliance and in meeting the organisation’s regulatory responsibilities. 

With the CRO role increasingly a C-suite, executive management appointment, it could be an appealing alternative to a mainstream legal role. The CRO is often responsible for managing overall risk across the organisation in the same way that, for example, the CFO manages financial issues and the General Counsel legal matters.

This means you’d work to establish excellent risk management standards and procedures that, as a minimum, meet regulatory criteria. You’d also work closely with other senior managers to educate others in the organisation about risk management processes and procedures. 

A key responsibility for a CRO is to identify and manage risk by developing an organisation-wide approach that prevents issues falling between the gaps. You’ll be expected to produce excellent risk data to enable the board and senior management to make informed decisions. 

Another recent innovation, the CCO role is well established as a senior executive position in most organisations in highly regulated sectors. CCOs coordinate compliance across organisations - and not just by managing compliance systems. In larger organisations, such as banks, the CCO will head a team of compliance professionals. 

According to Russell Reynolds Associates’ 2016 report, "How the Chief Compliance Officer role is transforming across Financial Services", many CCOs in financial services have been recruited from law firms and regulators. 

The CCO role is becoming increasingly specialised and is very much a senior business partner role. So as an in-house lawyer with broad, well developed business skills and an understanding of risk and compliance in a business context, you could be an excellent candidate for the role. 

Company Secretary 

Although only required by law in public limited companies (PLCs), many other companies choose to appoint a Company Secretary (CS).

In PLCs and larger organisations, the role is increasingly specialised and extends far beyond board administration. The role is sometimes combined with that of the General Counsel but is more often a separate, executive role. In larger organisations, the CS will head a team of secretaries and administrators servicing multiple boards and committees.

The CS plays an important role in managing the relationship between the executive management and the Chair and non-executive directors. This means the CS must win the respect of the board and have excellent interpersonal skills. 

The CS is at the heart of an organisation’s governance and works closely with the CEO and the board, particularly the Chair, in relation to the structure and administration of board business. 

They will also, of course, be closely involved in keeping the organisation compliant with its responsibilities under company law. The CS may also be involved in board training and evaluation processes as well as the recruitment of new board members. 

The CS role could be attractive if you wish to devote more time to governance and work closely with the CEO, executive management and the board. 

And, because there are several areas of overlap between the roles of the CS and in-house lawyer, you may be eligible to for exemptions if you choose to qualify as a CS through ICSA (The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators). 

Chief Operating Officer 

The role of Chief Operating Officer (COO) varies greatly depending on the nature of the organisation’s business. However, as the title suggests, the post holder oversees the organisation’s operations. 

COOs typically report to the CEO and are increasingly seen as the number two executive in an organisation’s hierarchy. 

Being another relatively new role, the COO has no traditional career path. They will, however, have deep business experience and work closely with the CEO. The role has been described as being responsible for the inward-facing aspects of the organisation, while the CEO focuses more on the external.

The COO may, for example, lead expansion programmes or organisational change. They often act as the foil to the CEO, complementing their experience and style. The role of COO can sometimes be a stepping stone to that of CEO in the same, or another, organisation. 

As a General Counsel or senior lawyer, you can make the step to COO. You’ll need strong business experience and sector knowledge to operate with credibility as the role is heavily oriented toward operational leadership. However, if you’ve demonstrated these qualities in your current role, you’ll be a serious candidate for a COO position. 

Chief Executive Officer 

It’s rare for CEOs in the USA and, particularly, the UK to have been practising lawyers (as opposed to having a legal qualification). The reasons for this have long been of debated and analysed. One theory is that lawyers are not as strong with financial data as others, another that, if they're unable to articulate the value of legal services and skills in their organisation, they settle for a lower profile and are not considered as good candidates for the top roles. 

It’s also possible that senior lawyers are reluctant to relinquish their professional status in the pursuit of non-legal business roles as they fear they may not be able to make the move back again. 

So, whether through resistance to their specialism or reluctance on their own part, many in-house lawyers become frustrated with their options and see the most senior roles as closed to them. This can deprive organisations of the analytical, critical thinking and counselling skills that senior lawyers possess and which they could utilise in a business leadership role. 

CEOs are drawn from a variety of backgrounds. What they exhibit are strong business skills and leadership qualities. But there’s no fundamental reason why a senior in-house lawyer shouldn’t be as credible candidate for a CEO role as any other candidate moving up from a C-suite position. 

Making the transition 

If you're serious about moving into another senior business role, here are five steps you can take to boost your chances of securing the position you want. 

1. Get experience in a different environment 

If you're worried that, for example, you lack board experience, look for a role as a non-executive director (NED) or trustee. Many charities and not-for-profits are looking for people with good legal and business skills to join their boards. This can provide a stepping stone (if you wish) to other NED roles. 

2. Get a business coach 

An executive coach could help you define your priorities and challenge you to look at options that you may not have previously considered. In particular, they will help you see yourself as others see you. 

3. Get a mentor 

A mentoring relationship with someone who's already doing, or has done, the job you'd like to do can help allay any fears you may have about moving away from your current role. This is especially true if your mentor has a similar background to yours as their insights and advice will be particularly relevant to you. 

4. Get good careers advice 

You may want an independent, professional appraisal of your options. What roles will you be a good candidate for and in what type of organisation? How can you make the step from where you are to where you want to be? You should also test your red lines about your next role - for example, around location and remuneration. 

5. Get qualified 

Taking further qualifications without a specific purpose or benefit in mind is unlikely to be helpful but there may be some particular steps you can take to enhance your credibility for certain roles. For example, becoming a chartered secretary may greatly improve your chances of becoming a Company Secretary. A recognised business qualification, such as an MBA, meanwhile, may add to your skill set, whether or not you move into a non-legal role. 


Having reached a senior position in the legal function, you may be considering your next move. It doesn't have to be a move to another, similar legal role. You may be a better candidate than you think for other C-suite roles although you may well need to plan how you will get there. Weigh up your options and get support and feedback. Look for ways to widen your skillset, particularly in ways that will help you to get where you want to be.