In-house lawyers must define and pursue own career vision

October 24, 2017

For in house lawyers, it is arguably more critical to have a clear vision of your career path and goals than in the private practice environment.

In private practice, at least in larger law firm environments, valued lawyers are provided with a linear and progressively upward path and are generally expected to rise to partnership ranks by building a client base, demonstrating adequate skills, and meshing with the culture of the firm. Lawyers are supported by a team of professional development staff and executives to help them refine their weaknesses and build on their strengths.

For in-house lawyers, however, the path to becoming an executive or General Counsel, is typically less directed and, owing to the constraints of organizational charts and budgets, your next promotion may very well present in the form of an external opportunity.

Many lawyers often assume that they should only pursue an in-house role if there is a visible path to advancing to General Counsel, but that mindset can be limiting. Instead of focusing on a visible and direct pathway, we, as in-house legal recruitment specialists, would suggest placing more focus on the bundle of skills you want to master in the next phase of your practice.

Roughly, the phases of career development in-house are:

1) technical skills mastery,

2) management,

3) enterprise leadership.

These phases are typically progressive and overlapping and mirror leadership corporate development.

For technical mastery, everyone who makes the switch in-house, no matter what level of call, echos that there is a learning curve to adapting technically to in-house clients. The learning tends to involve a mix of soft skills (communication, namely) and hard skills (delivering practical and business-oriented advice).

Stepping into management, in-house lawyers learn to be leaders, perhaps as the Director within a group with a few direct reports. In this capacity, the lawyer starts to develop leadership skills, with a focus on keeping their team accountable, efficient, delivering feedback, and perhaps managing budgets. The latter stages of phase two would include managing the managers within the group; this is typical for non-executive General Counsel.

Progressing into enterprise leadership, the lawyer is seated within the executive of the organization, often as the General Counsel or Chief Legal Officer. In this phase, the lawyer is tasked with helping to execute the vision set by the board and setting the culture for the legal team at large.

What phase do you want to strive for and how do you need to grow to get there? Not all in-house lawyers strive for the C-Suite but most who do rise to the top of organizations continually take the opportunity to build on their skillset.

If you are interested in speaking with a legal recruitment consultant regarding your in-house career options, we’d be happy to have a confidential discussion with you.


David Namkung, Partner