But what about in-house lawyers who want to consider non-legal careers – or at least, careers outside the in-house legal function? What are the options for them?Whether they practise in a law firm or in-house, lawyers tend to be increasingly specialised, and sometimes they may feel that this constrains their options. Often, though, the skills learnt in-house may be much broader than first thought – and with them the possibilities for future careers.
Most in-house lawyers will not only have learnt about the law – and how to apply it. They will have finely developed analytical and problem-solving skills. They are likely to have gained sectoral and specialist knowledge about their chosen organisations and the areas in which they operate. They may have acquired languages and technical skills. In-house lawyers are well aware that they will often form the ‘glue’ in informal teams to make things happen – and they will certainly have learnt much more about the practical application of psychology than they will ever have imagined.
Typically, they will also have well-developed communication skills, they will understand how to research a problem in detail, and will have the ability to follow up and finish a piece of work with great persistence.
What, then, can in-house lawyers consider as an alternative profession? Much depends on whether they want to continue to work in a corporate environment, or prefer to think about entrepreneurship, academia, the third sector or another area altogether. Are they looking for a lifestyle change or a different challenge?
It’s also important to think about the stage in one’s career at which a change is appropriate – some of these roles may be early-career opportunities, others more suitable to seniority. In some cases, you may need to persuade others why you want the role in question – but you may see their initial reluctance as an opportunity for you to share why you want the new role. And if you have always wanted to do something different – however far from the law – why not try it?
Some possible careersThese suggestions are offered for your consideration, but they are not off-the-wall proposals – there are former in-house lawyers working in, managing or taking responsibility for virtually all these roles. In many cases, they will have seen the opportunity or the opening whilst working in their in-house roles, and built the networks which have allowed them to take them. Do any appeal to you?
Academic. Do you like the academic side of the law? Might you consider taking a further degree, or becoming an academic, whether in law or another specialist subject? Legal skills of research, problem-solving, writing and communication are directly applicable.
Author. Your legal writing skills will have been well-honed. Could you become an author – fiction or non-fiction, in preparing formal documentation or writing for business?
Business Developer. As an in-house lawyer, you may well have been involved in developing your employer’s business – approving sales pitches, working on sales and purchase documentation, working with customers to finalise contracts. Could you take that to another level, developing the business personally? Or could you work for a law firm, presenting the firm to the in-house community – you will have a much closer understanding than a law firm partner will achieve, and understand how and when to sell.
Business Process Leader. Is your interest in formalising and documenting what you do – in developing business processes, structures and systems, whether around the law or other activities? Increasingly, legal businesses are using a range of business process skills, but they are widely used elsewhere in industry and are a very important skill. Could you lead a business process team?
Business Owner. You may well have decided that you like working in a business environment, but are itching to try it out for yourself. Or you may just be frustrated with the constraints of a corporate environment. If you have a compelling business ideal in mind, your in-house experience may well have given you the techniques and contacts to turn it into reality. Why not try it out?
Communications and PR. There is a very clear link between legal and communications/PR activities in any organisation. Your insight will give you clarity on what should – an can – be communicated, and even if you want to stay in the law, quite a number of in-house teams look after communications and PR functions.
Compliance. Obviously many organisations have compliance functions, and it is a clear adjacency to legal work. There are legally qualified compliance professionals in many organisations, particularly in the regulated sectors such as finance or banking.
Company Secretary/Governance Professional. Many lawyers act as company secretary to their organisation, or lead secretariat and governance professionals, but increasingly in larger organisations, former in-house lawyers are in specialist company secretariat and governance roles, ringfenced from the legal team to give independence and clarity of advice. The Governance Institute has fast-track qualifying routes for lawyers (see Further Reading).
Consultant. You may like doing what you do – whether the legal or other parts of your role – or pursue your other interests working for yourself. Perhaps you could do so as a consultant, giving a wider perspective by working for other clients, and allowing yourself to work a pattern of hours which may suit you more than regular employment?
Director/Non-Executive Director. Really these are two separate roles. Almost all organisations will be run by executive directors – whether called Chief Executive, or by some other name. There are lawyers, including former in-house lawyers, who lead their organisations. Often in the UK they transitioned to non-legal roles at a relatively early stage; in the US, more usually from the general counsel role. Either way, they are proof that the legal skills learned and honed in-house are good preparation for an executive director role. Equally, though, the non-executive role – those directors who are not employed by an organisation, but who play a role of governance, supervision and direction as well as sharing the common obligations of a unitary board – may well be of interest. Again, legal skills are very well suited to working as part of a board – and a non-executive role may be something you can initially pursue whilst still holding an in-house role in your current organisation.
Editor. The skills of detail work, writing and communication are well-suited to editing other peoples’ work, whether as editor of a journal, a professional publishing portfolio, or in the context of social media.
Entrepreneur. Lawyers may not, perhaps, immediately be thought of as entrepreneurial, but there are plenty of examples of people with legal backgrounds who have started businesses, invested in others, and used their entrepreneurial skills to build an enjoyable and profitable business career.
Executive. One of the difficulties of gaining a role at the C-Suite level, whether CEO or in another role, is that a board will want the candidate to have gained executive-level business experience. If you aspire to these roles, you may well wish to build your career path in executive – non-legal – roles, building your operational, financial and business experience.
Health and Safety. In the same way that lawyers may find a straightforward transition to the adjacent roles of compliance or governance, for lawyers practising in specialist areas of safety or prosecution work, a specialist role in health and safety may be considered – especially important in organisations that have particularly high-risk or high-profile operations.
HR Specialist. Similarly, employment specialists may wish to expand their skills by seeking HR roles where they can bring their expertise not just to dealing with HR processes and issues, but in using them to benefit the organisation through selection, appointment, induction, training and development.
Investment Banker. Many corporate in-house lawyers will be familiar with working with the corporate teams of law firms and investment banks. Those who have done a number of transactions will come to realise that the boundary between the skills of banker, lawyer and accountant are increasingly blurred in a major transaction, particularly in relation to analysis, drafting and documentation.
Investor Relations. Most public companies will now have sophisticated investor relations functions, which look after both large and small shareholders, brokers and analysts, and deal with the increasingly complex environment which may well now include short-sellers, activist investors and hostile interests. The lawyer’s legal and business skills can be well-matched to the challenges and regulatory complexities which this brings, and give an interesting and rewarding career.
Innovator. It has been said that an in-house lawyer has a better view of an organisation than anyone else. Can you use the skills learned in that way to innovate solutions, to disrupt markets and delivery structures? If innovation is your passion, perhaps you can combine it with one or more of the other roles suggested here?
Mediator. Mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution can be very effective, and many in-house lawyers will be involved in them on a regular basis. Might you consider a career as a mediator, arbitrator, or other ADR specialist?
Mergers and Acquisitions Specialist. In the same way that the corporate lawyer may be drawn to investment banking, they may find themselves looking to broaden their corporate skill-set by becoming an M&A specialist, learning the financial, practical and operational skills of assembling acquisition and disposal opportunities, marketing, positioning and concluding them. It may be possible to do this within your home organisation and to transition back to the law in future should you wish.
Operational Leader. Perhaps as an intermediate stage to an executive role, you may like to learn about the operational aspects of your organisation by learning to run a business with responsibility for people, a profit-and-loss account and operational delivery, which will all stand in good stead for further business advancement or an executive career.
Partner. Although not, obviously, a non-legal role, the curtain between in-house and private practice is much thinner than was once the case, and you may well want to consider practising your legal skills as a partner in a law firm or other legal sector business, where you can also bring practical knowledge of the implementation of those skills in the sector.
Project Manager. Many of the roles covered here require excellent project management skills, and in addition, you may consider that your preference is simply to become a project manager.
Sector commentator. Many in-house lawyers become very well-read in respect of their chosen sector, not just the law but the business or organisational path which they have chosen. Often as an adjunct to a consultancy or academic role, some may choose to write, comment or broadcast about their specialist area, or to contribute specialist blogs as part of their business activities.
Specialist. If in-house lawyers become specialists in their particular area, they may perhaps wish to take that to the next level and to specialise in their field in some way.
Strategist. In many corporates, lawyers work very closely with the organisation’s strategy team, executing corporate transactions, acquisitions, mergers and disposals. Why not consider crossing to the strategy team itself to work not just on implementing transactions, but identifying and establishing the organisation’s strategy, its future size and shape, transactions and business model?
Teacher. Many lawyers teach as part of their day-to-day role – teaching trainees, junior staff, business and organisational colleagues and many more. They may teach law as part of their main role – but the skills are transferrable to mainstream teaching, and lawyers are welcomed to the profession. Further training, is, of course required but will prepare you for the role.
Trustee or Volunteer. Finally, in the same way that the skills acquired by the in-house lawyer can be very valuable as a non-executive director, they can be even more so if given freely to a charitable or third-sector organisation, where you may find that you can add significant value and allow staff to focus on the core operations of the charity rather than the complexities to which you can bring clarity.
Some final thoughtsIt may be said that the greatest constraint on an alternative career is not the ability of the in-house lawyer to do it, but their conservatism and reluctance to consider it, or their feeling that others will be better qualified for a particular role, and that therefore it isn’t something they should pursue.
It may, perhaps, be found that recruiters or employers will naturally feel that they need to follow an established path to identify candidates for a particular role – but persistence will find you the role you want. In the same way that you may seek out sector recruiters or employers for your chosen legal role, why would you not do the same for non-legal roles?
In your in-house career you will also have developed a much wider network than most of your law firm peers – why not approach them and ask about options and opportunities? You may well find that you bring most of the expected skill-set, and a great deal more besides.
If you would find it helpful to think things through further, you might consider taking some of the more usual psychometric tests such as Myers Briggs or Belbin to help you to understand yourself better, or ask friends and colleagues to support you in a targeted 360-degree appraisal which can help to identify your key skills and talents and to point you toward possible alternative careers. More details are available from the links in Further Reading.
Whatever you choose, it can be an interesting exercise to assess your skills, options and opportunities, whether you choose to use them to further your in-house career, or to take an entirely different course.
Further readingMyers-Briggs The Myers & Briggs Foundation (myersbriggs.org)
Belbin Belbin | High Performing Teams
360 degree assessements – free survey at 360 Degree Feedback Survey Tool & Questions | SurveyMonkey
The Governance Institute About Us (cgi.org.uk)
Charity trustee: what’s involved (CC3a) - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)