Career transitions for in-house lawyers

A legal career can go in many different directions. And wherever your career starts out, there’s a good chance that you'll alter course at least once as you respond to changing market needs and your ambitions and preferences.

Here we consider four examples of career transition, look at what’s involved and how you can prepare for it. 

Moving in-house

Most solicitors qualify in private practice. While opportunities to work in-house have significantly increased, it's still the norm for lawyers to move in-house later in their career.

This is not to say that training contracts are not available in-house. The Government Legal Service employs large numbers of lawyers and runs a training scheme with training contracts and pupillage. Additionally, the BBC and BT, with large in-house legal functions, also provide training schemes.

If you qualify in private practice, there’s now a good chance that, at some point in your career, you’ll consider whether to move in-house. The option can arise in a number of different circumstances, including:-

  • After working in private practice for a range of different clients, you're attracted to the idea of working more closely with one client and becoming more immersed in their business.
  • You've been seconded to a client organisation, you really enjoyed the experience and you'd like to move in-house permanently when a suitable opportunity arises.
  • You're looking for a different career path. Not everyone makes partner, or wants to. While law firms have non-partner career paths, some lawyers are more attracted to the different opportunities in in-house roles.
  • You're tired of billing and new business targets. There are targets in-house, but they tend to be more nuanced and are often also team-based.
  • You're looking for greater work flexibility and shorter working hours if you've been in a 'long-hours' culture. This isn't to say that in-house isn't pressured and workloads can be demanding.
  • After developing a good track record and reputation in a particular sector, you're in demand for in-house roles.

So, what can you do if you’re seriously considering a move in-house? Here are five tips:-

  • Try it out first if you get the chance. If you get the opportunity to be seconded to a client, that’s a great, low-risk way to test the water.
  • Have a good career plan. A career can take all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. But it pays to think carefully about where you’d like your career to go, how you can get there and why moving into an in-house role is important to you. After all, you’ll need to persuade any employer that you’re the right person for the role.
  • Speak to people who are doing the sorts of jobs you think you’d like to do. Unless you have been on secondment in-house, you may not really know what it’s like. It’s not just a question of how the work compares as there will be other differences you may be unaware of. Take the opportunity to network with in-house lawyers and learn about their experiences.
  • Find a mentor. There are mentor networks that will give you the opportunity to learn from those who are, of have been, in-house lawyers. These can be a great way to learn and help you with your planning.
  • Get good career advice. It may not be easy to broach the topic of moving in-house with your line manager or the HR team. But there are many good career coaches and advisers, including with experience of the legal sector. A coach will work with you to clarify your talents and options and to pursue the best opportunities for you.

Moving to another in-house role

If you’re already working in-house, you may be looking to move to a different role. This could be in the same organisation – for example, where there is a large legal function with opportunities in different roles and locations, including internationally. Or you may decide that you will need to move to another organisation to seek different opportunities, including advancement.

If you’d like to move in the same organisation, you’ll want to discuss this with your line manager as part of your career development planning. In many organisations, it may be expected that you will gain experience in different legal roles, particularly if you're ambitious for a GC or other senior position. This could mean gaining experience as an adviser to different business areas or as the lead lawyer in a business function or location. And there may also be opportunities to work internationally to gain wider experience.

Then again, it could be that you’ve decided you need to move on to get the role you want. In-house legal teams tend to have fairly flat structures and, in other than the largest teams, this can result in a slow turnover of senior roles. This means looking at opportunities elsewhere. You’ll know that in-house lawyers gain recognition for not only their legal expertise but also for their business acumen and people skills. So it pays to ensure that your learning and development very much includes all these.

If you’re planning on moving organisation you may need to build your knowledge of a different business or sector but your legal and interpersonal skills should already be sharp. So, ensure that developing business and people skills are also very much part of your career development planning and take as many opportunities as you can to build relevant skills – both inside and outside the organisation. This means taking advantage of the range of in-house skills’ building courses that may be available to you and, if you have the time, looking at such as non-executive director or trustee roles outside the organisation.

Moving Up

It’s not for everyone, but you may be ambitious for a senior management role – say as a GC. Even with an expanding in-house sector, these roles tend to be fairly rare and do not become available too often.

So, what can you do to put yourself in the best possible position to be hired, should the right vacancy come along? Here are 11 things to consider:-

  • Build a reputation as someone who gets things done and, particularly, the things that matter most.
  • Become more than just a legal expert in your organisation and sector. Understand not just the legal risks and priorities but also how the organisation works, its commercial and other challenges and opportunities.
  • Be able to articulate the role of the senior lawyer in the organisation, including what your professional obligations are and why they matter.
  • Become known as an excellent manager with the ability to lead others in good and challenging times.
  • Build collaborative teams and networks across the organisation – and outside it as well.
  • Be a good listener with a cool head and sound judgement.
  • Be resilient, someone who is not dogmatic but who will stick to their case.
  • Maintain an independent mind-set and make clear when you think things are taking the wrong course.
  • Communicate in a clear, straightforward style. Resist management speak and legalese where this undermines the persuasiveness of your arguments.
  • Manage up as well as down.
  • Learn how to measure what you and your team do and use it to demonstrate how this contributes to the overall success of the organisation.

Moving Out

Here we mean moving out of the law by taking a non-legal role. There are a number of options that you might consider as your career develops. Some are closely aligned to a legal role, such as in compliance or as a company secretary. Others involve a move into a more mainstream business role such as by becoming a chief operating officer, chief of staff, corporate director or a chief executive. Generally, these roles involve you being responsible for more than one business function. Of course, a GC may be responsible for other than a legal function but that involves still acting as a lawyer and is different from moving away from your legal responsibilities for a different type of role.

How easy is it to make such a move? In most cases you’ll put yourself in a better position with proper planning. Here are some things to consider:-

  • Lawyers are not unique in being attached to their role and status. This can make it difficult to make a change even if you know that that’s what you want to do.
  • Remember that moving out doesn’t have to be permanent. A lawyer has many transferable skills and moving to a non-legal role does not have to signal the end of your legal career.
  • All roles require a set of core skills, many of which a lawyer will possess. It will be a given that you understand the organisation – how it’s governed, funded, the legal and regulatory framework, its vision and objectives and key stakeholder arrangements. Then you need to understand the key requirements of the role and the need to agree business priorities, budgets and plans and work with others to achieve them.
  • Explore the scope for alternative career paths with mentors and advisers whose advice you value. Making an important career decision is not to be taken lightly or rushed so make sure you seek guidance, including from those who’ve already done what you’re thinking of doing.
  • Take the opportunity to widen your business skills. This may not be easy to do in the ‘day job’ but many employers and professional bodies provide opportunities for their employees and members to gain experience in different environments, either via training or by supporting secondments or volunteer roles. If you would benefit from board experience, for example, there are likely to be many not for profits and charities who would be interested in your experience.

And, of course, moving out doesn’t just mean moving into another business or executive role. There are opportunities to work in other types of organisations altogether – academia, the not-for-profit sector, government, legal tech and learning and development, being some examples.

In-house lawyers who are in the latter stages of their careers may also be looking at other ways to use their legal and business skills. Finances and preferences will be relevant factors, of course, but the lawyer’s combination of legal and business skills and experience are likely to make them attractive candidates for a range of paid and volunteer roles. 

Conclusion

More than ever before, careers are fluid and subject to planned and unplanned change. Qualifying as a lawyer doesn’t mean that you’ll stay in a particular role or sector for your entire career – in fact, it’s increasingly unlikely as lawyers move between different organisations and new opportunities open up. As your life circumstances change you may well want to (or be forced to) consider different options, including in non-legal roles. While you cannot foresee the future, what you can do is develop your legal, business and peoples skills so that they remain relevant, useful and transferable. And it always pays to have a strong and reliable network, good mentors and professional advisers that you trust.