I’m in mid-career – should I move organisations to progress?

Should you stay where you are, or move organisations?

One of the most frequent questions for in-house lawyers is how to progress at mid-career.

Career progression in a law firm traditionally followed a relatively straightforward model. 

People joined at a trainee or junior level, perhaps moved firms along the way, and progressed through the ranks of associate and senior associate roles to become a partner. Although this pyramid structure meant that relatively few people reach partnership, nonetheless there are many partners in most firms, partners are appointed in most years, and for the right candidate, it isn’t necessary to wait for someone to leave. Increasingly there tend to be senior solicitor or Of Counsel roles for those who don’t, or don’t want, to make partner.

In-house, even in large organisations, progression can be more difficult. While there are organisations that will help to manage your career and put in place arrangements for you to move jobs internally, it can often seem that you need to wait for someone to leave or for a vacancy to arise or be created to deal with an increased volume of work. 

Should I stay or should I go?

If you have been in your current organisation for a while, you will have a feel for how it works, how it treats you, whether you like it there – and how it develops people. Most organisations say that they regard staff retention as important – but there is huge variety in how they do it. What are the issues you should consider in deciding to stay or to leave?
Staying: issues to consider

  • Personal development. How does the organisation work with you and other lawyers on your personal development?  
  • Personal development plan. Do you have a personal development plan – and is it reviewed regularly with your line manager? Does your organisation have learning and development or talent retention specialists who can work with you on development?
  • Paying for development. Is there a development budget, either at team or organisational level, which you can access for personal development?
  • Have other lawyers been developed and promoted? Have other lawyers in the organisation been promoted internally? How have they achieved promotion? Are you able to speak to them to understand and learn from their experience?
  • How does your GC regard development? How well do you know your GC? Do you have regular one-to-one meetings with them, even if they aren’t your line manager? Can you approach them and talk about your career aspirations, and how they fit with the organisation’s own plans for growth and change? Do they see the growth and promotion of their lawyers as key to their plans, or do they simply see the role as purely functional, needing to populate roles to provide a service, but not as a two-way relationship?
  • Is there a talent or leadership programme – and can you access it? Many organisations have internal talent or leadership programmes of various kinds, ranging from those which keep an eye on potential high-performers, to much more detailed programmes with elements of an MBA. Are you able to access those programmes?
  • What are your other priorities? For example, how well does your current role or employer fit with your personal situation, such as location, benefits, maternity arrangements and the like? 
  • Do you enjoy your work - and the people you work with? It’s not a given in every organisation – or even every legal team. 
  • Do you know how you fit into your team and organisation’s succession plan? Most organisations of any scale will have a succession plan for their functions – and that includes legal. Do you know how you feature on that plan? How does the organisation see you – and what might that mean for your retention? 
  • Can you change the things you don’t like?  Sadly, no job is perfect – whether in your current organisation or any new one. But some things can be changed – and often aren’t because of a reticence to address them or explore what might be different. 

Going: issues to consider

  • Greener grass. There can be some truth in the old saying that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence – and the implication that a new job often looks more attractive than the old one. But is it – and how can you find out? It’s well worth exploring the reality of the new organisation with any contacts, colleagues or friends, as well as with recruiters, and researching the prospective organisation in detail online. 
  • Who are your new colleagues – and how will they react to you? In the recruitment process, at an appropriate stage ask to meet your key new colleagues – those who are peers, those who will report to you, and those who will be your internal clients. How do you feel about them – and how will they react to you? 
  • What is the prospective employer’s record of retention? Does the legal team keep and develop its lawyers – or do people move on quickly? Is the role new or a replacement – and if so, why is there a vacancy? 
  • What doesn’t the job description say? We all know that most job descriptions – however detailed – give only part of the story. What do you need to know which isn’t on paper? How does the role work? Will there be regular out-of-hours work, early or late international calls, or management meetings? What are the flexible working policies? How good is the legal tech which may be available to you?
  • Where is the organisation – and sector – going? You will want to do your homework on the organisation – and may well have done this in preparation for the interview process. It’s well worth researching both the organisation and the sector. If either is struggling, unless your role is related to some form of improvement, you might ask what that means for the future. Will the role be at risk? Even if not, will you find that pay and benefits are likely to be restricted as the organisation experiences funding difficulties? 
  • How do they see development? If you are thinking about moving due to enhance your career, how will your new employer help you do that? Will they support further training and development? Do they have a record of promoting and developing lawyers – and if you feel you might like to develop your career outside the law, how might that be possible in the new organisation? 
  • What’s the next job – and the one after that? Whatever the organisation seems to offer by way of development, if you are thinking of a change mid-career, the chances are you have an eye on longer-term development too. As such, you should be thinking about what the new role offers you by way of transitioning to more senior roles. If there is no obvious way to the next job, and the one after that, are you looking at the right organisation – or accepting that you will have to move again in a few years? 
  • Pay and benefits. Moving to progress doesn’t always mean moving for better pay and benefits – if for example you see more opportunity in the new role, or it offers a more convenient location – but generally, you will see progress as bringing with it greater rewards, in terms of pay, benefits or both. While it’s easy to compare base salaries, do make sure that you understand how variable pay and bonus schemes work, the true value of what is offered, and whether the benefits package is what you expect. It can be instructive to try to work out the total value of your package. If it isn’t easily done, you might ask the recruiter to clarify things – and you will also want to understand what progression is available in terms of remuneration. Moving to an initially improved salary isn’t helpful if the organisation has a record of flat or below-inflation rises. Consider also how the new organisation recognises seniority – if you are mid-career, will there be further rises based on increased seniority, or only if another role is found? 
  • What are you giving up? It’s natural to think about the possible benefits of a move – whether in career progression, pay and benefits or the intangibles of a move – but it’s also worth thinking about what you are giving up in a move. Are there financial implications – for example, bonus entitlements you might lose, or a particular pension scheme? What about work or specialist opportunities – how will a recruiter look at your career choice? And if your current workplace is particularly supportive, how do you value what that means to you?
  • Does it feel right?  Sometimes a decision to move – or not – is easy, but it may be that things are more finely balanced. It might even be down to a gut feeling about whether it feels right – or not.  If you had reservations about the person who interviewed you – or even about the way you were greeted when you arrived – how do they influence your decision? If it doesn’t feel right, bear in mind that it probably isn’t.

Specialisms, management and the future

As well as weighing up the factors in favour of staying or going, you will want to consider the professional implications. By mid-career, you will almost certainly have developed a significant specialism in your chosen area of law. Will your new role build on that – or mean a greater focus on the management of others? Is that your goal – or would you prefer to build on your specialism alone? 

If you aim to move into a role with greater management, how will the new employer support and encourage that? And how will it relate to future legal developments using technology and AI? 

And how will these decisions open or close doors for your future career? 

Making your decision

Lawyers are supposed to be good at assessing information, reviewing it logically and making a decision. In making a personal career choice, though, much more is at play. Is a move opening new horizons for you, or closing off options? How will it be regarded by recruiters when you look for your next job?

Remember that while the decision is yours alone, it’s very sensible to seek views from those you know and trust. While you may not be able to ask your current employer (although in some cases that can be a worthwhile possibility) you can and should explore other options.

While they are paid by your prospective employer, your recruiter should at least be able to provide factual information about the employer, its recruitment record and the way previous candidates have been treated. You may have a relationship with another recruiter who can offer you a more independent view, and of course, friends, contacts and former colleagues might well have a view about how the new organisation works – and regards its lawyers. 

Bear in mind that the way legal teams work – and work with their client teams – varies hugely between organisations. Does the organisation value its lawyers, or just regard them as a commodity? How involved are the lawyers in broader strategy – or are they just seen as a blocker? 

Strange to say, a new role may impact your family more than it affects you. Chances are you will be immersed in your new role and will find familiarity in your specialism and professionalism – but your family will notice if they see (even) less of you if you are travelling more or need to spend more home time in virtual meetings. If it is part of a global organisation, will you be expected to hold late-night calls and meetings regularly to match the headquarters timezone? 

This article has tried to set out some of the factors you might consider – perhaps to help you in assessing and reviewing the options and where you might look for advice. The decision, though, is yours alone and one you will want to consider fully and in detail. In some cases, you might find the choice is very clear and you know immediately what you want to do, but often it is more finely balanced.

Whatever your decision, remember that just thinking about a move can be useful in itself. It can give you an insight into other organisations and how they work, keep your interview skills current – and let you understand what you value, what you are looking for, and what your longer-term career plan looks like. Good luck! 
Further reading
Taking career opportunities – and the 13 Attributes and Strategies that will help you
Cultural fluency for in-house lawyers.