Take stock and assess your options
When you’re between five and fifteen years into your career, it’s good to take stock of where you are and where you want to go next. Are you committed to in-house practice as a career option? Does the sector or organisation you work in suit your skills and aptitude? Do you aspire to a senior role such as Head of Legal or General Counsel? Do you need to move on to achieve your ambition?
If you enjoy in-house practice but something's missing, think about whether you're in the right sector. For in-house lawyers, there are big differences between the financial services, pharmaceuticals and public sectors, for example.
Also think about the type, size and culture of the firm and of the legal department. Working as sole counsel in a small volatile private equity funded start-up surrounded by inexperienced and pressurised colleagues is a totally different experience from being lawyer number 4 in Europe in a team of 50 in a global listed company. The sector and the relevant law may be the same - but little else will be!
Perhaps you don't like the general nature of in-house work and long to become a specialist who works with a range of clients? In this case, a return to private practice may be the way to go. If greater flexibility for personal or lifestyle reasons is what you’re after, a freelance role may suit you best.
Think carefully about your options. Speak to people you trust and get specialist career advice if you feel it'll help.
The Y fork
Think too about whether you're better suited to be a subject matter expert (SME) or a business partner (BP).
As an SME, you’ll be an expert in one or more aspects of your organisation's business either: the operational side of the business, such as product design and launch, international sales or environmental regulation; or the legal side such as applicable IP law, DP law, Competition law, Health and Safety law etc.
Your value is in your deep knowledge and your ability to bridge changes in senior personnel and processes and provide continuity and legacy knowledge and to keep absolutely on top of how applicable law affects the business now and over the life of the company's 3-5 year forward business plan and strategy.
The risk in becoming too specialised is that, as the organisation changes, your knowledge becomes irrelevant and you may not maintain enough width of legal and/or business knowledge to be able to perform a more generalist role in the legal function. You will need to regularly review and update your knowledge and skills in line with business needs and wider developments.
As a BP, you’ll be the legal contact for specific business units. Your focus will be on their particular issues. As with the SME role, you’ll need to be wary of becoming too specialised in a particular area of the business at the expense of your wider knowledge.
As part of a longer term career development plan, both the BP and SME options can help you deepen your knowledge of the organisation and help demonstrate your value, and that of your team, to your organisation.
It is important to note that most senior roles are generalist roles (BP roles). SMEs who take on senior roles have to widen their remit and reduce their engagement in their specialist areas so as to deal with all areas of law affecting the business proportionately to the impact of those areas of law on the business. They should not be "over-favouring" their "pet topics" to the detriment of the business and, often, of the more junior members of the legal team.
The T shaped lawyer
The T shaped lawyer combines deep legal knowledge and skills with the ability to collaborate across multiple disciplines. This is particularly valuable, whether you become an SME, a BP or go on to be a General Counsel. So, as a modern in-house lawyer, you need first class:
- Legal skills and knowledge of legal issues, risks and changes in your organisation and industry,
- Business knowledge and skills, including service delivery, project and performance management, financial acumen and innovation,
- Ability to combine your legal and business knowledge in order to understand, prioritise and provide ways to ensure that the business maintains its legal risks at its chosen risk appetite,
- Excellent communication skills, and
- Emotional intelligence, self-awareness and a full range of soft skills.
The in-house sector provides great opportunities, though it's not for everyone. To progress and succeed, you’ll need to develop your legal skills, your business knowledge and your emotional intelligence.
If you're a mid level lawyer, now is a great time to evaluate your career to date, assess what you do best and enjoy most – and plot your future.