In this article we look at how your outlook can help you ensure that, as an in-house lawyer, you are well-placed to spot and seize career opportunities, when they arise.
The traditional career ‘ladder’ seems largely outdated as does the idea that your employer will be responsible for providing you with a career path for your entire career. The concept of a career as a series of upwardly mobile moves until retirement rarely applies today, if it ever did.
A career is perhaps better characterised now as being about a series of roles within one or (more likely) several organisations that provide you with opportunities to build your expertise and skills through challenging and (hopefully) interesting work. You’ll also have the opportunity to build contacts, networks and friendships.
The difference from the old career ladder model is that it is now more incumbent on you to ensure that you are building the expertise, skills and contacts that you need for the long term rather than relying on just your employer to provide these for you.
After all, most organisations adapt to changing business and other circumstances meaning that your role may develop, change or even disappear! Taking more ownership of your own career development will also help you to take new opportunities, whether as part of a planned career transition or when one is forced upon you.
Getting to grips with a more proactive approach to your career requires you to think carefully about the skills and expertise you are building and also to think about the attributes and strategies that you need to adopt to ensure that not only are you effective in your current role, but that you are also well placed to pursue new opportunities when they arise, whatever the reason.
In this article, we consider 13 of these attributes and strategies.
This is not positivity for its own sake. Rather, it is about being recognised by your clients and colleagues as someone who will work hard with them to find solutions to problems and not be content to highlight the difficulties. This is no more than should be expected of any in-house lawyer but how you go about your business can make all the difference. A proactive, can-do attitude will always be appreciated and will be important when you are being considered for a new opportunity.
A fundamental requirement for any in-house lawyer. You earn trust in two ways. First, through the way in which you conduct yourself. You’re on time, keep your word, treat others with respect and say when you don’t know the answer. Second, through the quality of your work. You’re clear, concise and identify risks and solutions. You’re not afraid to stand firmly by your opinion but you’re also prepared to change your mind, when necessary. In short, you’re respected.
You need to be curious about your organisation, how it works and the challenges it faces. And about the people that you’re working with. This curiosity drives you to find out, to question, to challenge and to support. You’re interested in getting things done, making them work better and in achieving goals and objectives. It also means that you can spot trends and opportunities and that you will generate ideas for solutions. Curiosity also extends beyond your current role and organisation so that you are curious about other roles and organisations that you may be interested in working in.
If you’re presented with a new opportunity (or are being considered for one by others) it can be tempting to think that it’s what you’ve achieved previously that will get you the role. While this may be an important factor, don’t ignore the importance of being seen as someone who can adapt to new situations and take on fresh challenges. Business moves quickly and the organisation relies on its executives and managers responding effectively to changing circumstances. Doing things as they’ve always been done only gets you so far and it helps to be seen as someone who is proactive and adaptable to new challenges.
Just as you want to be seen as adaptable so too with resilience. You become resilient through your ability to rise to problems and difficulties and to keep your focus when faced with adversity. This could be in a professional or personal context. It’s not an easy thing to learn as we can all sometimes feel overwhelmed in certain situations. But a positive mindset and ability to see the bigger picture can help enormously – as can your mentors and your personal network.
To develop self-awareness it’s important to get good feedback from your line manager and clients on how you are performing and on what you could do better. This may already be part of your organisation’s performance management processes but look for good feedback wherever you can and whether formal or informal. Feedback is of little use unless it’s regular, real-time and relevant. Telling you that your work is “excellent” may be nice but it reveals little about what was valued in your work and where things could have gone better.
7. Learning & development and stretch
You need to be in charge of your career planning generally, not just in relation to what’s required to remain professionally competent or to participate in in-house training. In particular, by considering and reviewing what legal, business and inter-personal skills you need to develop to put you in the best position, to pursue those opportunities that you want to pursue. As most of us learn best by doing, think about how you can take on work and projects that require you to build and develop new skills – project groups, boards and committees, training others, managing others etc. As well as looking within your own organisation think also about how you can get development opportunities outside the workplace.
Social media makes it easier to build a network but quantity is not a substitute for quality here. There will be a network of contacts you can make in your organisation and industry but look, in particular, to engage with those from whom you can learn, as well as those who may learn from you. For example, look for those doing the types of job that you aspire to or who are influencers in your organisation or field and make contact with a view to learning from them. A strong network is not only an excellent way to learn from others but it can also provide you with intelligence on new opportunities when they arise and provide you with support in the process.
9. Focus on key skills
In times of flux and uncertainty, it can be tempting to think that being seen as too much of a specialist will hinder your career development. At the same time, be too much of a generalist and you run the risk of not being recognised for anything. In fact, many in-house lawyers retain a fairly wide brief, with the possibility of having to master a new one or two being always a possibility. The key here is to ensure that you are strong in those areas expected of the best in-house lawyers - legal knowledge and how the law impacts your organisation and sector; how legal risk is calibrated; your critical thinking and analytical skills; your problem-solving and results orientation; your people and communication skills; your calmness in adversity; your business delivery skills; and your high ethical standards.
10. Management and Leadership
If you aspire to a senior in-house role, or a senior role outside the legal function, you need to demonstrate a willingness to lead and manage others. Look for opportunities that will give you this experience, inside or outside the workplace. The more you do it, the better you’ll get as management is a learned skill. It also teaches you a lot about working with others, teamwork, delegation, communication and respect. While all managers should be leaders, the two are not synonymous. You can demonstrate leadership in a number of different ways as it’s about your conduct, values and trustworthiness. Look for those opportunities that will help you grow your leader’s wings.
11. Your values and ambitions
In pursuing opportunities in your own or other organisations, it’s useful to reflect on what matters to you about your work i.e. your values, as these will determine which opportunities you go for. Be honest about your hierarchy of requirements for a role – what type of organisation; its sector and values; the nature of the work and opportunities to develop; team focused or more of a solo role; salary and benefits; environment and location etc. The clearer you are about what matters to you the better you can focus on meeting your wishes. Without this focus, you’re more likely to jump at whatever’s in front of you at the time.
12. Think opportunities, not job
It’s tempting to think about career development and fulfilment in the context of the next role/job that you do. But this can hinder you on two levels. First, because you focus on the responsibilities, influence, benefits etc. that you will have rather than concentrating on how you can maximise the returns from your current role. How can you perform this role so that it’s clear that you have outgrown it and that you’re, effectively, performing at the next level? Second, because it may make you unwilling to take on opportunities and roles that appear less attractive but which, in fact, will greatly help with your development. So, think about what you can learn and the contribution you can make from, for example, being in a project team or leading a training project.
13. Pursue opportunities and take intelligent risks
You may not always get the next role you want at the first attempt. You may need to plan a path so as to put yourself in a good position to get a particular role or to work in a particular organisation. Think about your ambitions on two levels – what’s the next obvious move for you and also what’s the ambitious or dream move? Then map out what you’ll need to get there and who in your network may be able to help you. The obvious move may be what’s exactly right for you now as you may learn new skills that will greatly assist you in pursuing other roles in the future. At the same time, the path to your dream role may well not be a linear one so be conscious of operating within yourself when it may pay to take on a task or a role that will be more of a stretch. It may be scarier but your ability to take on challenges and adapt to change may be exactly what others are looking for from you.