Changes to adopt when moving from Legal Counsel to General Counsel

This viewpoint is part one of a series that charts a typical path through an in-house career from a skills and behaviours perspective.

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Bruce Macmillan on 19/08/19

If you are already in-house, and do not see all of you, your team or your manager in this profile, you should see elements of them in it. If you read something that looks out of place compared to you or the people in your team, ask yourself whether it is making them grow faster, stall at their current level or, worse still, go backwards.

If you are reading this, you are either already doing or are contemplating doing one of the most interesting jobs in business and, by choosing to read on, you are showing that you:

  • understand that success as an in-house lawyer is about much more than just the law
  • are self-aware and want to develop personally
  • are taking active steps to manage your time and priorities to address that understanding and self-awareness by making time for strategy and personal development in your hectic, transactional working life.

This may not sound like much to celebrate, but it is critical because these three points are at the heart of progressing effectively in the in-house environment.

How new are you to in-house life?

This is relevant to you at whatever level you are at in your career.

Contemplating in-house law 
Think about whether the journey you are considering is one that you really want to take. You do not succeed by doing things half-heartedly.

New to in-house 
Before you drown in tactical, responsive and high-volume “grunt” work, stop and focus on what is required to reach that promotional light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing where the light is, and staying focused on moving towards it, is essential if you want to progress.

Five to fifteen years in and not yet in a top role
Stop, assess and think. Consider what it is going to take to move to the top and whether you actually want to go there. If your head and/or heart are not really in “it” any more, take stock and work out what you actually want to do: law firm, business role or lifestyle locum? Take action before your lack of conviction shows up in your performance ratings. If your head is still in it, make sure you know what you need to do to keep developing.

At the top
Well done! However, your continued success and personal growth depends on leading a healthy team. Consider how you can ensure that your team members follow in your footsteps. Remember that where your luck, skill and personal effort got you might not come quite so easily for even your most talented staff. 

If we were to start again as part of the 20% of today’s regulated legal population that is now in-house, would we still get to the top? Most of us had it easier than our teams’ will as, even only a few years ago, the in-house profession was smaller, and teams were smaller and lower profile. Stakeholder expectations were also lower and they tolerated much more personal dysfunction in legal teams in exchange for having cheap legal advice on tap. 

To help our teams grow and develop, we need to put ourselves in their shoes and then work out what is necessary now, and in the coming years, to get them on the next step up the in-house legal ladder. Also, remember that being perched on top is a balancing act that requires active and ongoing management.

The first step in going forwards: not going backwards

You may have heard of the Peter Principle, Laurence J. Peter’s management theory that people get promoted until the point at which they become incompetent. So, firstly, make sure you do not set yourself or a team member up to fail by promoting yourself or them until you are sure that you or they will remain competent (albeit stretched) at the higher level. Also be mindful of the importance of accurate self-awareness. Avoid being either an:

  • alpha over-optimist (you could go backwards by being too assertive and move up before you are ready)
  • overly self-deprecating pessimist, who may hold themselves back and become stale.

An accurate self-view, informed by being self-aware, and seeking and taking genuine feedback from informed and trustworthy colleagues is key.

A coach or mentor can be a great use of your personal training budget allocation if you are trying for promotion or have just been promoted. However, when listening to third-party or coaching advice, be prepared to act on it, even if it seems tough or strange to you. After all, you will need to do some things differently to succeed in your new role.

A more general explanation of the Peter Principle is: “Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails”. Why does this matter? Well, if the volume and complexity of law affecting your business grows each year, and your business itself grows in volume, complexity, product range and jurisdictions (and can you imagine a business that you would want to work in that did not?), what does that mean for your existing role? More likely than not, it means that the role is growing, changing and adapting appreciably year on year, even though the title, job description and pay may not be.

Therefore, if you do not consciously change, develop and grow, how long will it be before you become incompetent in your existing role? Even if you do not want to or cannot go higher, it is worth reflecting on what you need to do to avoid being left behind in your current role.

Before moving into the in-house pool

Most lawyers move in-house at two to five years qualified; a few earlier, a few later. At the two-to-five year qualified level, you are normally used to:

  • working responsively
  • a partner auditing your work
  • being very precise (even if it takes all night)
  • being perfect
  • having access to (by in-house standards) great support, resources, training and knowledge tools
  • being up-to-date on the law
  • having precedents and guidance notes available on-demand.

Most private practice lawyers of any level probably also directly or indirectly use Practical Law. However, you might not appreciate that many of your clients also do. They are therefore only likely to be looking for your help when they cannot find the answer themselves. This is also why all work from clients is urgent and top priority. Previously, you might not have appreciated that they will not spend money on your services unless they absolutely need to. By the stage they do, they are probably late (having tried to find the information elsewhere first) and expect top-level service because ten hours of your time as a junior lawyer (or two to three hours as a senior lawyer) eats the training budget for one of their team for the whole year.

At this point in your career, you probably have quite a clear understanding of your role and feel that it is important, different and somehow special. Your work is likely to have some peaks and troughs, with the odd quieter day or week, rather than being totally unrelenting and unremitting, and you will probably have many peers and other people to turn to for advice. However, at the more senior end of the range, you may be starting to notice how quietly hostile and territorial people are becoming as the race for that elusive partnership place starts to warm up.

You are unlikely to have had much:

  •  project management experience
  •  project overview experience
  • client relationship management (as opposed to client exposure)
  • outright, unchecked accountability for your work-product to clients.

Hopefully, if you are contemplating moving in-house, you will have done a couple of secondments and started to see how different the world is.

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