When lawyers move in-house they must be prepared to take control of their own careers, writes Eduardo Reyes.

Junior lawyers at a recent Gazette roundtable expressed a degree of ambivalence about the traditional career milestone of ‘making partner’. Whether at a high street firm or a global giant, partnership is not the glittering prize it once was – at least for some. Rising to a senior in-house position, by contrast, is becoming more attractive to a growing number of ambitious solicitors.

But in aiming for a stellar career in-house, lawyers enter a different world. Law firms carry the certainty of being told if you are on track for partnership. In larger firms, the natural attrition rate allows you to move up the firm’s ‘pyramid’; and in a well-run practice the process will also be eased by sensible succession-planning.

Once they cross the divide, however, lawyers find that the routes to career progression in-house are more difficult to discern. Hence, one assumes, the gratifyingly high turnout for a recent panel discussion on inhouse careers hosted by the In-house Division of the Law Society. This brought together four leading inhouse lawyers who shared their career experiences and took questions. About 150 lawyers were there, keen to learn the rules of the game. As Law Society vice-president Robert Bourns, who chaired the event, observed, going from a large law firm to a much smaller in-house legal team can be an isolating experience.

Typecast and trapped?

Panellists are not identified – a precondition of their frankness – but here is the rough career path of each. One started professional life as a neuro-chemist, before retraining as a lawyer and practising at a global law firm. From there she went to a major retailer, where she ‘had fun with the biggest budget imaginable’. Later head of legal at a consumer organisation, she now leads the legal team at a national charity.

A second studied English at university and did a postgraduate degree in forensic science. There followed articles of clerkship in-house at British Coal – once home to a formidable legal team – before being TUPE-ed across to a national law firm’s Yorkshire office. Thence into a hi-tech environment working for a major mobile phone company and a move into the gas sector. She now heads the legal department of a major building materials business. The third is not yet a general counsel, but is ‘working to a plan’ that he anticipates will take him to the position of GC at a FTSE 100 company. He is currently in-house at a major pharmaceutical corporate, but has also spent time in two consultancy businesses.

The final panel member is a civil service ‘mandarin’ – director of legal at a major department, but with wider responsibilities as well. She started life as a corporate lawyer before moving in-house to the Government Legal Service. At the GLS, she needed to become expert in a wide range of areas such as tax, European law, pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Time spent at the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, was especially useful in gaining contacts and an overview of how different departments work and relate to one another.

All four have, unsurprisingly, moved around. Key attractions of working in-house – smaller teams where hierarchy is worn lightly and closeness to the client – can militate against the possibility of promotion. However supportive of your development, the boss is not necessarily going to create a vacancy by moving on.

Taking the initiative

The charity head of legal strikes a chord with fellow panel members by observing that time spent on corporate law was instructive. ‘There is very little law in corporate law,’ she says. ‘It’s about how to do deals.’ Thereafter, an easy facility with ‘commerciality’ is what carried her between roles with confidence.

Others note that it is possible to separate the technical from the more general skills needed to secure a role. Jumping sector requires thought – and self-knowledge – but it can be done. As one panellist puts it: ‘You have six months’ leeway when you start a new role.’ That time should be used to learn about the business, its needs and its priorities.

In that time and beyond ambitious in-house lawyers should (while being careful not to breach competition law), think of ‘phoning a friend’, as ‘there are no brownie points for working it out yourself’. ‘In an entrepreneurial atmosphere you may find you are allowed to make mistakes – just not the same one twice,’ one notes.

‘Being conscious of how your advice will land’ is crucial for gaining trust and making a good impression. An early imperative is to work out the organisation’s ‘risk appetite’. A route that lacks a certain outcome might be the right route, if the organisation has a high appetite for risk.

Building a ‘network’ within a new organisation is also important. That is an exercise that can be calculated. ‘Draw a relationship matrix,’ one panellist suggests. ‘Which five people in the organisation are you going to get to know?’

To this end, another adds: ‘Time that’s spent drinking coffee in the cafeteria can be more useful than time spent at your desk.’

It is easy enough to draw up a list, but how should a lawyer new to an organisation get noticed by their chosen quintet or their legal boss? Panel members had broadly similar advice on this. People destined to ‘progress’ bring the ‘right attitude’ to the job. ‘They shine’; ‘they have enthusiasm’; ‘they lean in’; ‘they grab every opportunity’ – and as a result ‘they are given huge exposure’. That may include realising that ‘a crisis is a great opportunity’. And, of course, ‘being liked goes a long way’, as does having an obvious ‘passion for the business’.

They might also have recognised what stood out about their record. Were they, for example, a litigator, which is a less conventional route into an in-house role? One panellist urged the audience to do anything they could to make a CV or covering letter stand out, confessing: ‘These days I don’t normally read CVs, because I have never read a bad one.’

Party for one

Of course, one can achieve the post of ‘head of legal’ without having any other lawyers to be ‘head’ of. This was the case for a significant minority of the audience at the In-house Division event. Law Society figures show that while some in-housers might work in a bank’s legal department of 1,000-plus lawyers, many work in much smaller teams. It is a telling statistic that 25,000 in-house solicitors are split between 6,000-plus offices.

In this context, the titular achievement of becoming a ‘head’ has probably come early on in an in-house career, and from the perspective of the sole in-house lawyer their career development is far from done.

For lawyers in this category, it is critically important to spend time building a network through associations like the In-house Division and industry bodies. In addition, as one panellist says: ‘In a legal team of one, you absolutely need a mentor.’

The pharmaceutical lawyer, who has worked in bigger departments, remarks: ‘So many people at the top of organisations have had help from coaches and mentors that they don’t acknowledge. It leaves the impression that they just got where they are through some inner strength.’

That is unfortunate, he adds, as younger people with ambition understandably try to work out how to emulate success.

A personal plan

A lawyer will probably have moved in-house in search of something unavailable to them in private practice. Factors related to work-life balance, the risks of equity partnership or a desire to be more commercial or closer to clients can all be factors here.

But simply going in-house does not amount to a career plan in itself. What then?

‘Decide what success looks like for you,’ more than one panellist advises. This is one area where a mentor or career coach can help. One question from an attendee put the panellists on the spot. How hard had they worked to get to and maintain their relatively elevated positions? Two panellists benefit from flexible working, while the other two noted the need for personal time they could ringfence if there wasn’t a crisis happening (that is, time spent not checking emails as they come in). But experiences varied. For one, evening work was the norm, while emails relating to Monday morning would be checked and answered on Sunday evening. In each case, however, the panellists stressed that this was how they were ‘happy’ to work.

The shine has come off much of private practice in recent years – that much is known. But for ambitious lawyers who have turned their back on it, making progress in-house involves negotiating a complex terrain. There is luck involved in identifying the right vacancies and the right opportunity coming up at the right time.

But in-house lawyers can and should position themselves to take those chances by deciding they are not limited to practising in one sector, and spotting and putting themselves forward for development opportunities. And they must not neglect the need to build personal networks in ways that help them to advise – and rise.