Building a career as an in-house lawyer

In this year’s first Centre for Legal Leadership webinar, hosted in conjunction with Thomson Reuters, the speakers discussed their experiences of working in-house, both in government and in large multinational organisations, and also provided some tips on how to build a successful career as an in-house lawyer.

Avoid a structured career plan

Many junior lawyers feel pressurised to have a clear idea of how their career will progress when they start out but having a fixed plan can often act as a constraint on your career. Instead, aim to focus on interest and engagement, rather than simple progression. Always have an open mind and be prepared to take new opportunities when they arise. Not having a clear plan can be an asset as random job moves often provide great career experience.

Mentoring can be an excellent career development tool

The speakers had differing experiences of mentoring. While one never had a mentor (although would have liked one), the other benefited greatly from mentoring throughout their career, particularly while in government. Both formal and informal mentoring can be beneficial, while having multiple mentors during different phases of your career can help you tap into diverse networks.

Mentors can provide an excellent sounding board for career advice and development, and for discussing how to handle tricky practical issues that you may be uncomfortable talking to your colleagues about. For further information, see Practice notes, An introduction to mentoring and Mentoring: establishing successful mentoring partnerships and programmes.

Private practice experience is recommended

Both speakers gained significant experience working in private practice before they moved in-house, and they were keen to highlight the excellent grounding that this training provided. It gave them a sound understanding of key legal skills, like drafting and negotiating, and meant that they had the confidence to apply this knowledge in an in-house context.

Collaboration is key

Lawyers are problem solvers, and they need to be able to leverage their knowledge, and the expertise of their colleagues, to find answers. Collaboration, with other lawyers (both internal and external) and with individuals from across their organisation, is therefore crucial. For further information, see Practice note, Identifying and overcoming barriers to collaboration.

Leadership and management are different skills

When you move in-house, you automatically assume a leadership position and colleagues will turn to you for your advice and expertise. As you become more senior, your job will become less about giving purely legal advice and more about fielding commercial questions and queries. A senior lawyer working in the government will often take on a policy role.

Leadership is different from management, and it is important to understand this distinction as your career progresses. While management is focused on the day-to-day exercise of overseeing your team, leadership is about articulating a vision that your team can work towards. For further information, see Practice note, Leadership: how to lead your team effortlessly.

Matrix management structures

Working in-house for a multinational company provides opportunities to build new legal skills and to move between different parts of the organisation and jurisdictions. You are able to see the commercial realities of the same business model being deployed in different geographies, with different legal systems.

Lawyers are often aligned with specific business units and are therefore scattered across the organisation. This means that there may be no centralised decision-making process for the legal function, which can bring challenges in terms of creating consistency. If you are working within a matrix structure, it’s vital to get to grips with it quickly. For further information, see Practice note, Management: how to make matrix management work effectively.

Developing your career within a small legal team

Distinguishing between critical and routine tasks is crucial when you work in a small legal team. Your focus should be on the critical tasks, and you should aim to identify tools that can help you deal with the routine tasks. For example, by publishing FAQs on a company-wide intranet or training the business on certain tasks.

Remember to make the most of your existing relationships with your panel firms (for example, via secondments or by relying on them to provide regular training). Shared training events can enable a firm to really get to know your business.

Be prepared to move out of your comfort zone and go beyond purely legal issues. Get involved with organisational-wide developments, for example, helping the company define its approach to artificial intelligence.

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