How to develop your career as an in-house lawyer - 7 things to remember

We look at 7 things to be aware of as you look to build an interesting and successful in-house career.

If you’re already in an in-house role, or are contemplating moving, you may be wondering what a typical career path looks like, particularly as it can be quite different from the career path of colleagues in private practice.

Certainly, in larger law firms, there are likely to be clearer stages of career progression based on your level of post qualification experience and expertise in your specialist area. This may not be the case in-house.

How then can you plot a career path for yourself in-house and what are the things that are likely to help, or hinder, you in doing so?

1. There is no one-size fits all career path

The size and structure of the in-house team will affect the opportunities within it. A larger team may have the sorts of hierarchy familiar from private practice, albeit with different job titles. So, there will usually be managing roles, which are often a stepping stone to a GC or other senior role. Such a structure can provide junior lawyers with a clear path for advancement.

A smaller team may not be structured in this way as there may only be one lead lawyer and few (if any) managing roles below that.

As a result, there may be sufficient opportunities within a larger team for you to plan a career path for some years ahead. If you aspire to a senior role, you will know that competition for these is likely to be fierce and there is no guarantee that only internal candidates will be considered. Smaller teams may provide you with great hands-on experience but it may become clear earlier that you may have to be open to moving organisation if you want a senior role.

2. Specialists, generalists and being adaptable

Most private practice lawyers become specialist in one or two areas of the law that reflect the core business areas of their firm. You are not expected to get involved in a wide range of legal issues that go beyond your specialist area.

Except in the very largest in-house teams where there may be roles for narrow specialists, many in-house lawyers will find themselves having to adapt to a range of legal enquiries that arise in the context of the organisation’s business. The in-house team may not have the resources or the predictable workload to employ specialists.

This has resulted in a need for many in-house lawyers to be flexible and adaptable as they respond to new and different problems and potentially learn about new areas of the law as their organisations change. This adaptability will often be seen as a career asset and is likely to be of more importance the more senior you become.

3. Have your own career plan

Many organisations have career development programmes that should provide you opportunities to develop wider business and personal skills that will benefit you in your career.

A good career development programme will also provide you with a good idea about how you can progress in the organisation and the things you need to do to give you the best chance of taking advantage of future opportunities.

However good the career development planning is in your organisation, it is sensible to maintain your own plan for these reasons: -

  • You may work in an organisation that doesn’t have such a developed career architecture.
  • You may leave the organisation at some point and you need your plan to cover that possibility.
  • Your career priorities can change over time for different reasons and it may not work for your career plan to be entirely linked to organisational needs – which can also change.

So, take advantage of all the career development options on offer through your organisation but have your own plan, which you can develop with the help of mentors and other trusted individuals.

4. What should I include in my career plan?

Start with your values and with what motivates you. Do you love the cut and thrust of business and want to be close to the commercial activities? Do you want to work somewhere where you can help delivery public policy change or be part of an international business? How much does the organisation need to reflect your own values and interests?

Being as clear as you can about what matters to you will help clarify the type of organisations and roles that you are attracted to. Remember, your motivations can change over time although our values rarely do. So, it pays to revisit your plan on a regular basis.

Look also at skills and behaviour. If you aspire to a senior in-house role there are certain things that you will need to be good at. Unsurprisingly you need good legal skills and be on top of your brief. You will also need to be able to communicate your advice in a way that is clear and actionable. It greatly helps if you are calm, non-judgemental, collaborative, persuasive and resilient. Think about how you can develop these skills and behaviours both inside and outside the organisation. Take opportunities to learn and stretch yourself.

Finally, most senior roles involve managing others. It can be a shock when you first take on this responsibility but it can help a lot if you have had some prior experience of working closely with others and being responsible for delivering something, even if not in a formal management role. You can get this experience, perhaps in a project team or an industry group or in a non-work setting. So, look for opportunities to lead in other ways.

5. The importance of networks and mentors

We meet people in our organisations and beyond throughout our career. This doesn’t necessarily constitute a network as we may have little or no ongoing contact with many of these people.

A network is a group of people (it could be quite small) who you can call on for support and guidance, as appropriate. But it’s not just a group of people who can help you, so people in your network need to be able to ask you for support also.

A network needs cultivating, so it pays to keep in touch with people and to look for ways to help people in your network, for example by passing on useful information or linking people who have mutual interests.

It’s important to build a good network in your organisation, so look at who you need to build strong links with. This will not always be just the obvious people. For example, think about those who can smooth access to those colleagues that you need to build good relationships with. It will help if you’re seen as someone who’s personable and willing to help.

A good network is likely to go beyond your own organisation and include those in your business sector and other interest groups. As your career develops you will appreciate the benefit of having a strong and diverse community of people who you can support and who can support you.

Mentors are those with an active interest in your career development. They want to help you succeed and do well but they are willing to be frank and critical, if necessary. A mentor should hold you to high standards.

If your organisation has a mentoring programme, take advantage of it. If not, join an external programme and look for experience both as a mentor and a mentee.

6. Taking opportunities

Ambition can take different forms but it is important to recognise and seize opportunities when they arise.

A strong network will help you keep abreast of opportunities and support you in pursuing them. You will be on the lookout for opportunities to grow and develop, whether or not this means taking a new role - for example, by leading a project, joining an important group or committee, chairing meetings, or leading internal training.

Some of these opportunities may seem daunting. Indeed, you may mess up or find that things don’t always go as planned. But a willingness to ‘step up’ will often be noticed and mark you out as someone keen to learn and to accept new challenges.

Don’t be afraid to apply for opportunities, even if you think you’re not ready or qualified. Even if you’re unsuccessful, you’re likely to learn a lot about yourself from taking part in the process. The act of putting yourself forward demonstrates ambition and confidence, even if you don’t always feel that way! And you may be surprised that others think you are ready for an opportunity even when you’ve decided that you’re not!

7. Moving on

You may spend your entire in-house career with one organisation. It may be able to provide you with the range of opportunities you seek. Even then, you are likely to take on different roles, or perhaps change location or even jurisdiction.

More likely, you will change organisations (and perhaps sectors) at least once in your career. You may want (or need) to move in order to fulfil your career ambitions. You may want to work in a different type of organisation, or seek a role with better rewards, or because you see a new role as one that better meets your ambitions and values.

Moving on can be difficult, including getting the timing right. Of course, it depends on the right role coming along but moving on from what’s familiar is challenging and because you’ve worked hard to develop the legal, business, and personal skills in your current role.

Deciding whether a new opportunity is right for you can be daunting, so don’t be afraid to take soundings and advice from trusted members of your network and, if appropriate, seek professional career advice.