How do I progress to more senior roles – and do further qualifications help?

Lawyers move in-house for many reasons. Very few regret the choice, but one of the differences from working in a law firm is that promotion opportunities in-house may be less defined than in a law firm in which people might progress steadily through the ranks to a partnership.

In-house management structures are often flatter than in a law firm. That may mean that you progress in different, less linear, ways to senior roles – but also that a much broader range of opportunities are open to you.

How do I progress to more senior roles?

So, what might you do to help you progress to more senior roles?

  • Understand yourself. Anyone is who considering appointing you to a more senior role will want to understand you, how you work, what you know, and how you can develop into a new role. If you expect someone else to do that, though, it’s important that you first understand and can articulate those things yourself. Your organisation may well have tools you can use to help you, ranging from various psychometric assessments, Belbin, Myers Briggs and similar profiling tools, to 360-degree surveys where you approach people you work with or who know you, and ask them to talk about their impression of you. This can be a daunting prospect, but it’s well worth it. It can be very rewarding and enlightening, and it can give you clarity on how you are seen by others.
  • Understand the system. Assuming you want to progress in your organisation, do you understand how the system works? Do you know how roles are identified and recruited, whether they are advertised internally or externally, how you can find out about them and access them?
    You may well find that your manager, and your HR teams, are open to a discussion about how this happens – particularly if you approach them in the context of a developmental discussion, asking for their help in understanding how you can develop, and prepare for roles that may be available.
  • Ask how others have progressed. As part of your developmental discussion, you can also consider asking how others have progressed – and approaching more senior colleagues in the team to ask them how they prepared for and obtained their roles.
    Remember, too, that organisations differ considerably in how they identify and develop talented people, and that legal teams can be seen as something of an oddity outside mainstream processes. This isn’t necessarily a negative as it can give a level of flexibility which isn’t possible in some larger and more structured teams.
  • Learn about the organisation. Having decided to come in-house, you are likely to have been drawn by what the organisation does, as well as by its legal team. But do you understand how it is developing, how it works, what it plans to do in the future, and what its strategy might be? You will find that many of your business or operational colleagues are only too willing to talk about these things, and you may also want to approach the strategy team, if there is one, to understand their work. That will allow you to put what you do, and know, now in context – and also give you the chance to identify where there may be gaps for future roles. Could you even design your own next role?
  • Think about flat structures. Traditionally, law firms have operated an ‘up-or-out’ structure, where people progress from trainee to partner over several years, and leave if they don’t get to the next step. While that has changed in recent times, with more firms retaining more senior non-partner roles such as Of Counsel posts, it is still true that an in-house team will tend to have a flatter structure than a law firm. There may be more roles at a single grade or level, fewer very senior roles, and ultimately only one group general counsel. A new role may well involve a sideways move into another function or division – perhaps even out of the legal team altogether into an organisational role – to gain new experience and skills. The skills learnt in this way – for example by working in an international division, in the organisation, or an operational role – can be directly relevant to preparing you for advancement.
  • Visibility, supporters and promoters. We mentioned earlier that advancement involves others knowing about you, who you are and what you do, in the context that you should know yourself. If you want to advance, it’s important that those who can help your progress know about you and that you use your opportunities to increase your visibility with the organisation. These may, of course, come through your day-to-day work where you are interacting with a range of people across the organisation.
    Equally, many organisations will offer the chance for you to work on projects across the legal team, or indeed across the organisation – on new developments or legislation, on business-critical issues such as acquisitions or mergers, or legal operations projects such as panel reviews or quality systems. You may also have an opportunity to apply for organisational leadership programmes.
    As well as allowing you to build your skills, these all offer opportunities to allow more senior people in your team and organisation to get to know you, and to see how you work. That visibility can be critical when new roles are under consideration – you may find that your supporters consider you for a different post, and even that your promoters think about how a role can be created specifically for you.

What about roles outside the organisation?

While the points mentioned above are largely focused on moving to more senior roles within your organisation, most of them are equally applicable when you may wish to consider moving on. In particular, when you think about a new organisation you will want to know something about it, how people get on in it, and how you might progress once you are there. Don’t just think about the role you are being offered – consider what the next role could be, and the one after that, and how you get there.

Consider also your profile outside your current organisation. Many people have advanced because they have been spotted by people on the other side of a transaction or dispute, and you may also find that working on industry or sector groups or charities not only increases your knowledge but gives you exposure to others.

You may find, too, that your external profile gives you visibility outside the organisation – whether from writing learned articles, contributing to books, speaking at conferences or simply having a regular presence online. As with any social media presence, you will want to exercise a degree of caution that you are presenting an appropriate and professional profile – and you may well find that your future employer will have looked at your posts. Make sure that they do you justice.

Do further qualifications help?

Unhelpful generalisations.
The question of additional qualifications can sometimes divide opinion. You may sometimes hear people tell you either that they are essential to the job you want to do – or that they are completely unnecessary and a waste of time. Your employer may be very supportive of your wish to develop yourself by gaining further qualifications – or at best agnostic. Sadly, you may even find some senior individuals openly hostile. The best advice is to ignore all these generalisations and to consider for yourself whether you believe there are qualifications which you feel would allow you to do your current role better, to prepare you for future roles, and (crucially) which interest you sufficiently to reward the time and cost of undertaking them.

What roles do you want?
Across the profession, legal roles are becoming increasingly specialised, and that is the case in-house as in law firms. If you seek a role in a specialist function, in a particular sector, or an organisation that specialises, you may well want to consider obtaining a specialist qualification, in the area of law in which you want to specialise. Equally, if you wish to progress in the sphere of legal operations or as a general counsel, you may find qualifications in those areas invaluable.

Which qualifications might you consider? In general, you will want to ensure that a qualification has content that will develop you and is recognised and appreciated by your current or future employer. Your consideration might include:

  • Specialisms. Fellowship of an appropriate professional association may be helpful, as may a master’s degree or even a doctorate in your chosen specialism.
  • Business qualifications. If you are interested in becoming a general counsel – or taking your legal skills into the broader business world – a general or specialist MBA may well be helpful.
  • Governance, compliance, and secretariat. If you are considering adding a company secretarial role to your career choices, as is quite often the case in-house, you may well want to consider one of the Chartered Governance qualifications offered by the Chartered Governance Institute (formerly the ICSA).
  • Other jurisdictions. If you are considering working in another jurisdiction, then qualifying there will be helpful at the very least (even if not essential in all jurisdictions) and will give you greater credibility amongst your colleagues and contacts.
  • Languages. If you are operating internationally, working for an organisation based in a different country, or considering a posting to a different jurisdiction, you might also consider languages as an option.
  • Finance. One language which lawyers are often said to struggle with is that of finance, yet it pervades everything you will do in-house, and you may well find it most helpful to undertake at least some study to enable you to read and understand a set of accounts, and the financial assessments which your organisation makes.
  • Professional development. Finally, do not neglect professional development opportunities, such as those offered by CLL. While these may not give you a formal qualification, they will continue to build your skills and expertise, will allow you to talk about them at an interview, and give you exposure to professionals in other organisations who can share their experience and allow you to build your network.

Some thoughts about obtaining qualifications.
Anyone who has been through their legal training will know that obtaining qualifications isn’t easy – it takes time, application and money. Obtaining qualifications while doing a full-time job and maintaining family relationships is even harder, and you need to be realistic about whether you can find the time and enthusiasm to undertake your chosen qualification. If you do, though, you may well find that the time-management skills which you develop are directly applicable to your day-to-day work and that your horizons are broadened by the task and the people you meet, even beyond the specialism, so that you do your job much better than before. You may also find that employers welcome the initiative which you have shown in developing yourself, and that itself gives you an edge over other candidates.

Perceptions and reality.
While you may find that some employers may have preconceptions about further qualifications and their value to the in-house role, there is no doubt that they do differentiate you from other candidates, and they may get you an interview that you wouldn’t otherwise get. They also create the opportunity for you to set the narrative about why you undertook them, how they helped you to develop – not just as a specialist, but as a more rounded lawyer - and what you think they would bring to the next role.

Some final thoughts.

Progression to more senior roles is very much about your development – as a lawyer, as a manager, as a person. Although most organisations are interested in developing their staff, responsibility for your development can only rest with you – the person who has most to gain from the progression to a more senior role, and from further qualifications. You may well take the opportunities offered by your organisation - and you should seek advice and guidance freely. Ultimately, though, the decision can only be your own. If you have read this far, the chances are that you are interested in taking your career forward, and you will want to consider how best you go about that – which may well include further qualifications.

Some further reading

CLL Resources
Coaching and mentoring for in-house lawyers