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Webinar report: Managing and developing your career as an in-house lawyer

Charting your path to success

In 2021, CLL Contributors Ian White and Simon McCall co-authored the 2021 Globe Law and Business Special Report, Your Role as General Counsel: How to Survive and Thrive.

This year, they teamed up again to co-author a further Globe Law and Business Special Report, this one titled Managing and Developing Your Career as an In-house Lawyer.

So we were delighted that Ian and Simon collaborated with us to co-present a webinar and share practical insights relevant to every in-house lawyer – career development.

Joining Ian and Simon to add further learnings from the role were two lawyers with in-house experience.

Joanna Day headed up legal functions at Santander for over 30 years. These roles covered diverse industry challenges and led Joanna to recognise the importance of resilience in both self and others. A non-executive director and trustee of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, Joanna has a Diploma in Company Direction from the Institute of Directors and is working to become a Chartered Director. 

Paul Freeman is qualified in England and Wales, Australia and Hong Kong. As a partner at Clyde and Co, he spent much of his time in Singapore as a disputes lawyer. In 2020, Paul moved in-house as Senior Legal Counsel and Head of Enforcement at the Isle of Man Financial Services Authority. Recently, he joined Douglas based law firm, Cains, as a consultant practising in disputes and financial services regulation. 

Do you want to be an in-house lawyer?

If you’re currently working in private practice and are considering switching, a secondment to an in-house role is a great way to get a taste of what the change could look like. It’ll enable you to make an informed decision and get answers to some of the practical as well as emotional questions that’ll influence your decision. A secondment will give you a good idea, for example, of:

  • What your working hours may be;
  • How much travel may be involved to other offices and locations;
  • How the in-house role differs culturally from life in private practice;
  • The type of conversations you’ll hear and be part of;
  • How much time you’ll spend in meetings/Teams calls, working alongside others and how much you’ll spend alone; and
  • How the role impacts your work/life balance. 

Think too about what you’d like people to say about you after three months in the role. A secondment is your opportunity to carry out due diligence on in-house life.

Once you’ve made the switch

For many, the attraction of an in-house role is to get close to the business side of things and play a part in organisational strategy. If that sounds like you, an MBA (sponsored, if possible) could further enhance your career. Look closely at the MBA programmes available and choose one with the syllabus and elective options that best match your career goals.

Similarly, learn as much as possible about the organisation you’ve joined. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting in front of the most senior people. Chances are, you’ll learn more about what makes things tick from the ‘doers’ and the ‘lynchpins.’ You’ll also find that your colleagues love talking about their jobs to people who actively listen.

If you’re involved in setting legal strategy, work backwards from the corporate strategy.  This will have taken industry issues into account and resulted in a set of corporate goals. From here, you’ll need to:

  • Identify the key legal issues, such as:
    •  Legal risks;
    • Commercial risks;
    • Operational risks;
    • Financial risks; and
    • Reputational risks.
  • Build the legal strategy around these factors and your organisation’s risk appetite; and
  • Communicate your strategy to executives in practical terms – remember, now you’re in-house, those around you will think in commercial, rather than purely legal, terms.

Getting to the next level

Once established in-house, you’ll start to think about the next stage of your career. This is where being seen as a valued business partner as well as trusted legal adviser become essential.

Your understanding of different types of board structure (they vary across the UK, Europe and the US) will matter. In some organisations, the General Counsel has a seat on the executive board, in others they don’t. On the one hand, being a board member can be a good thing as you’ll be involved in key meetings and on the circulation list of critical internal documents. On the other hand, it can be hard as a director to retain your independence as the organisation’s legal conscience. 

Your relationship-building skills will also become more important at senior level. As a legal leader your ability to influence the top people across the organisation will matter more than your legal specialism or supervision of subject matter experts in your team. 

One way to prepare yourself for this is through non-executive directorships or trusteeships of charitable organisations. These roles will give you a close-up look at how boards function as well as great experience in presenting at the highest level. 

Beyond GC

If venturing beyond a purely legal role appeals to you, there’s a wide – and increasing -range of options.

Company Secretary is one. However, as Ian, who has held the role in both listed and major private companies, points out, it’s a job that has changed in recent years. It’ll expose you to challenges that legal roles don’t and so calls for different skill sets. In many large organisations, the Company Secretary role is challenging to hold with that of GC due to the scale of both roles.

That said, it’s worth taking a close look at the role as it applies in your organisation. If you feel you can combine Co. Sec and GC, go for it.
Other senior roles that a background in legal may prepare you for are Chief Risk Officer and, with environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies increasingly prioritised, Head of Ethics/Sustainability.

Keeping the team motivated in a flat structure

It’s generally acknowledged that many in-house legal teams are flat structures with few opportunities for promotion. Simon shared an example of how this was dealt with to keep lawyers motivated and fresh. Team members were assigned to work with:

  • Different types of legal work (ie contracts, IP, etc);
  • Different parts of the business (ie operations, HR, etc); and
  • Different geographies (ie UK, Europe, etc).

Teams were rotated across this matrix at appropriate intervals to keep their roles varied, interesting and challenging.

Access the recording here.

Get a 10%  discount on Ian and Simon’s report.

Managing and Developing Your Career as an In-house Lawyer is available from Globe Law and Business from £75. Buy your copy here and get 10%  discount with our code: Legalleadership10.