How not to leave your in-house legal job

"look before you leap" does not just apply to Parkour!

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Bruce Macmillan on 29/11/17

It is increasingly common for an in-house legal career to be made up of a series of 2-3 year roles followed either by an internal role move or a job change to another company. In this respect, in-house law is simply copying developments in the client departments of the companies that it services.


Even if you stay in the same role, it is increasingly rare for that role to remain unchanging over time – mergers, restructurings, regulatory change, legal change, Brexit. Manage a complete annual personal development cycle without something material happening that does or might affect your job and … you should probably suspect that something significant has happened and that you have somehow overlooked it.

The Peter Principle (first articulated by Peter Drucker) is that people get promoted to the point where they become incompetent. However the evolved version of this is that the role that you are already in can very quickly outgrow you – unless you are working hard to stop this from happening. 

And do remember that if you are bored and under-motivated in your work it will be visible to others - even if you think that you are hiding it… 

Success is a mixture of luck, consistent effort, integrity, proactivity, networks and thoughtfully monitoring the environment around you. You cannot do much about the luck – but you can do a lot about the other things and, if you do, the likelihood of being both lucky and able to capitalise on that luck, significantly improve! 

And, of course, if you do not do all of the other things then the chances of being lucky reduce.

One of the downsides of the long term growth in in-house law is that there are now a lot of very bright, very able in-house lawyers who are getting ever more senior in a community where the number of senior roles available is not growing at the same rate. 

If you add in automation, the economic climate and the long term uncertainties about Brexit (which is as likely to shape the decisions about whether to hire lawyers at all and if so where those senior in-house lawyers will work as it is to shape the same questions for any other senior functions in an international business) then the picture is only likely to get more challenging. I asked Bruce McEwan of the US legal blog Adam Smith Esq when he thought "peak lawyer" would be in Western economies. His answer was 2008…  

Everyone's circumstances are different and sometimes leaving an existing role before finding a new one is unavoidable (I know, I have done it). Sometimes it is advisable – if fatigue, losing out in a restructuring of the company, the company making a decision on something critical against your advice, you need to change home base, or other personal circumstances dictate it.

However we are now in a market where I regularly hear of very good people taking two or more years to find new roles and there are a lot of very good people seeking that elusive great interim role too.

And it remains the case that it is generally easier (for a lot of practical and psychological reasons) and less stressful for you (and for your nearest and dearest) to find a job while still in a job – and then take the sabbatical month that you have always promised yourself between roles after the new role has been secured if you need to.  

So the overall point is clear – your prospects of job Possession, job Enjoyment and job Progression  (putting some "PEP" into your career!) will be much stronger if: you are proactive and thoughtful on an ongoing basis about:

  • what you need from your career now and in future
  • what your realistic skills and competencies are (current and attainable)   
  • what your current role is and what the future "trajectory" for you from that role is (taking account of the team, the business, its business sector, the economy generally)
  • what the market for the roles that you are interested in is like – both inside larger law departments and on the wider market

If you are current about the market then you will know if the grass that you are on is genuinely greener than the grass elsewhere – if nothing else it may make you more focused and committed to your current role as it might, despite its faults, be better than the alternatives. Of course, if there is some grass which is genuinely greener elsewhere, then it may well be time to move – but at least you will have ensured that it is a real and realistic move!

For help and guidance on career development and career moves for in-house lawyers please read visit our knowledge: about me section here.

So while the market may not be easy, it is possible to improve your likelihood of being lucky. So: Be Proactive, Be Prepared and put the most PEP that you can into your career!

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