Your in-house career

Planning and influencing the shape and direction of your career can seem like an awfully big task and one that you really don’t have a lot of time for, given the demands of the day job.

Of course, you have ambitions for the type and level of role you’d like to do; the nature of the organisation you work in; and the skills and expertise that you’d like to develop and use.

But how do you make this happen? Here are a few thoughts on making this work for you.

Taking charge of your career development

Just as you will plan and scope a work task or project to identify what’s needed and when, so it pays to give proper attention to your own development.

The organisation you work for may already have built career development into its performance management processes so that you have a regular opportunity to identify how you’re progressing against particular measures for your role. The process should also allow you to identify your career goals within the organisation (and perhaps beyond) so that you have a clear idea about what it takes to reach the next level.

Even if you don’t have the advantage of a ready-made career development programme that you can tap into, it’s worth developing your own. Here are some things to think about: -

  • Skills – what are the key skills I need to develop to be successful in my current role and to progress to the next level (whatever that is for you)? Legal expertise, of course, but what are the other skills that I need to master?
  • Ambitions – what motivates me in my career? This is not the same for everybody. You may want that GC role with the responsibility and prestige, but it’s not for everyone. And motivations can change based on where you are in your career and your life experience.
  • Interests – this will influence the type of work you do and where you do it. That’s not to say that you’ll find your perfect role immediately. But in-house practice varies greatly and there are real differences between the work and culture in different types of organisations. It is important that you gravitate towards those that best match your interests.
  • Values – many in-house lawyers are employed in commercial organisations that provide high quality, varied legal work in a competitive and fast changing environment. Yet, you can find these in other types of organisations, also. You may find that you’re more drawn towards working, for example, at the heart of government, in a public body or in the charitable sector because the work chimes more with your personal values and ambitions at that time.

A bit more on skills

If you ask any group of in-house lawyers what skills you really need to progress in your in-house career, you’re likely to get a range of suggestions. But let’s consider some of the obvious contenders:

Legal expertise

It seems obvious that your legal expertise will be seen as a key skill. Having a deep understanding of the law relevant to your organisation’s key activities will be a given. But it’s far more than just a theoretical understanding.

You need to understand how the law impacts on what the organisation does and what it may want to do and be able to concisely explain the risks and benefits of particular courses of action. You’ll also be expected to advise on the impact of real and potential changes in the law and relevant regulation.


No matter how deep or broad your legal knowledge, it’s of little value to your clients if you cannot communicate what they need to know in a way they can understand and apply. Becoming a good communicator means being able to write concisely in a way that explains clearly the relevant legal process and risks. It also means being a good verbal communicator, not least as many client interactions will be informal or in meetings.


This covers both your communication style (clear, persuasive, good listener) and your ability to influence direction and outcomes i.e. being in the room. Often a key challenge for the in-house lawyer is being involved with the right people at the right time. So, you need to learn how and who to influence to make sure that legal issues and risks are part of the business conversation.

Commercial Awareness

In-house lawyers have long been called upon to be more ‘commercial’. This was often short-hand for wanting lawyers to have better understanding of the organisation and be in tune with its language, goals and objectives; to be user-friendly; to integrate legal requirements into the business process; and to identify, calibrate and manage legal risk in a way that supports rather than hinders business objectives.

Collaboration and Networking

Being more integrated and influential comes from adopting a collaborative approach and building good networks.

Recognising that many organisations have moved to working in project teams drawn from across the organisation or relevant business areas, in-house lawyers will often be working interactively with business colleagues as members of such teams. This provides lawyers with a great opportunity to build effective networks and emphasises the importance of having good communication skills.


It really helps to be seen as adaptable and flexible in your approach and in working towards solutions. This does not mean always agreeing with the client or seeing your role as one that only facilitates the meeting of business objectives. You will need to be resilient when cautioning against a preferred course of action.

But being seen as someone who can be depended on to clarify the risks and pitfalls but work constructively to find a way forward, should earn you respect.

Isn’t being a good lawyer enough?

If you’re reading this thinking that the in-house lawyer needs a pretty wide ranging and comprehensive skill-set to succeed, you’re right – to an extent. But while in-house lawyers have been urged to develop their business skills and their emotional intelligence (and these certainly help), the fact is you trained as a lawyer and that’s your core expertise. And it’s easy to forget what is already in the ‘tool box’ of any well-trained lawyer with good client skills: -

  • You’re analytical;
  • You exercise good judgement;
  • You have an evidential, logical approach to decision making;
  • You have high ethical and professional standards;
  • You’re resilient in the face of pressure;
  • You listen well;
  • You have deep knowledge of the relevant law and its application; and
  • You’re level headed and calm in a crisis.

These are all valuable skills to be built on and developed.

The value of good mentors

No one succeeds alone and a sure way to give your career development a real boost is to get a good mentor or mentors. If you’re organisation runs a mentoring scheme, take advantage of it. If not, look for a mentor to help support you either in relation to specific aspects of your career, or more generally. A good mentor should give you good, objective advice from a position of knowledge and experience.

If you don’t know where to start in the process, let us at CLL know and we can point you in the right direction.

Remember also that there is real value in mentoring someone else as well as being mentored.

Training & Development

Many in-house teams are strong on the training and development of their lawyers. They ensure continuing competence in the core areas of the team’s legal expertise, increasingly via online resources and programmes as well as the more traditional classroom sessions.

In-house lawyers can also often take part in the wider business training available in an organisation, particularly those in more senior roles and where the General Counsel pushes for lawyers to be included.

But it may not be enough to just rely on what’s on offer from the organisation. Lawyers are responsible for their own development as well and this may cause you to look beyond the organisation at other options. This could include acquiring further legal or business qualifications (which can be expensive) or looking at ways of increasing your knowledge through industry groups and events, for example. You may also look at building business skills via trustee or non-executive roles where you can gain good board experience.

The need to move on - transferring companies, sectors and roles

The fact is that most in-house legal teams are not large and those that are tend to have flattish management structures. This means that, if you’re ambitious for a senior legal role, you may need to change organisation and perhaps sector to make that happen.

While working hard to progress in your current organisation is admirable, there may be advantages in gaining broader experience by moving roles and organisations. This breadth of experience may make you a more attractive candidate for the most senior roles, when they arise.

Of course, if you work in a large organisation, with a large in-house team, you may have the opportunity to take on new roles within the team, thus providing a real sense of career progression and giving you a better chance of securing a senior role. But otherwise you may need to think carefully about a more flexible career path.

Having good mentor support and professional advice can help you decide what is best for you at particular stages of your career.

You may decide that you would like to move into a broader business role. While many General Counsel have a broad brief that goes beyond just managing lawyers and legal work, you may be looking for something different – perhaps in another C suite role such as a Chief Operating Officer, Chief Executive or Chief of Staff.

To get there you will need to think carefully about what core skills and experience will help you secure such a role. Becoming a chair of a trustee board, for example, could help you build your board and leadership experience.

A career journey

For most of us, our career is not a neatly mapped-out journey where we seamlessly move from job A to B to C etc. to a nicely wrapped retirement. Rather, it’s more of a journey where we respond to both planned and unplanned opportunities and setbacks and make some unexpected detours along the way.

Many of us will end up in roles or positions that we did not envisage when we began our career. Careers can be unpredictable. But it’s also worth bearing in mind these (four) points: -

  1. Your legal training has equipped you with a broad set of very valuable skills that can be built on and developed.
  2. These are skills that are relevant (and valuable) in different organisations and in different legal (and non-legal) roles.
  3. A commitment to developing a well-rounded set of legal, inter-personal and ‘business’ skills should put you in a strong position to take advantage of career opportunities when they arise.
  4. A willingness to explore new learning opportunities, whether in your current role or beyond, should make for an interesting career path, wherever it leads.