Two Career Aspects Where in-House Lawyers Want to Make Progress

January 7, 2021

It’s interesting how some things can simply remain de facto.  As Partners of The Counsel Network, we hear the voices of trepidation each year as performance review season approaches.  And we field a variety of questions from human resources professionals, legal department leaders, in-house lawyers and even members of the Board and senior management team.

For the manager responsible to conduct the performance review of the in-house lawyer their goals for the annual performance review might be to recognize and appreciate the lawyer’s contribution, provide any helpful guidance or feedback (good and bad) for the go forward and to retain and motivate in-house counsel over the long term.   Whereas in-house counsel want a meaningful discussion about their career progression both in terms of role and compensation.

Making Progress in the Role

Sometimes, recently hired in-house lawyers might not know how to advance their career within the company or be aware of what career development opportunities are available to them.  While they seek direction and guidance from their employer, they might not realize that the lack of rigid career paths for in-house lawyers allows them to actively shape their role.  And, annual performance reviews need not be the only time for these discussions.

Lawyers headed to in-house positions face a couple of risks.  The biggest risk factor, especially if they are the sole practitioner within the company, could be a general lack of guaranteed career progression in their role.

Lawyers might also be concerned about the risk related to their technical development progressing if the roles are narrow in focus or if specific areas of legal expertise are outsourced and they become more so project managers than practicing lawyers.

To battle a career plateau when ascending the ladder, the in-house lawyer should start by defining what success and career progression means to them as legal professionals.  Discussing such aspirations with your performance manager will help both of you to formulate a strategy that addresses the risks or concerns one might have yet aims to propel your career in a way that outlines a pathway forward and brings greater satisfaction.

Making Progress in Compensation

Understanding how best to reward and recognize in-house lawyers each year can be problematic.  Compensation can be tied closely to the scope of the role itself, which can present challenges in justifying a pay raise without a corresponding promotion available within the organization.

One way to approach this is to consider how the in-house counsel role can be adapted, both to allow the job to remain challenging, and to better service the organization as it evolves.

For example, in-house counsel may want to expand their role beyond strictly legal to other areas such as training, compliance, or matters traditionally outsourced. One counsel recently noted that at her yearly review, she proposed simple changes including updating precedent contracts and devising a training program for commercial managers on contract negotiation for lower value contracts. The net result was to free up more time for the lawyers to deal with complex and high risk contracts rather than farming them out to external counsel. This provided tangible evidence on which to justify both her request for a pay raise, and to expand her role out to compliance and policy matters affecting the organization.

To make the most of the year-end review, both parties must approach the process with an understanding of what they are hoping to accomplish and be ready to openly and fully discuss the individual’s goals and how they relate to the organization and industry as a whole. Talking to another objective professional who is steeped in knowledge about the legal sector is a great way to gain insight.
Sameera Sereda is the Managing Partner and Chair, In-House Counsel Division at The Counsel Network, a Canadian legal recruitment firm specializing in legal talent management strategies covering all levels of lawyers and practices for both corporate legal departments and law firms.  To discuss compensation strategies contact Sameera at or 403.444.1763. 


To gain insight to current compensation of in-house counsel, download our complimentary In-House Counsel Compensation Survey and Report.


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