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Leadership consultant Ciarán Fenton looks at the difficulties in rising through the ranks, and offers some advice and ideas as to how the profession might help. 

Career management implies some control over one’s career. Over many years working with in-house teams, I’ve seen the limits of that control at close quarters. They experience three main career inhibitors.

First, the term of office of a general counsel tends to be long, restraining those beneath them from moving up. The level of frustration this causes is much higher than acknowledged in the legal press, at conferences and even in informal group conversations. Encouraged to stretch to their limits at school, university and at work, especially in the early years post-qualification, many in-house lawyers feel shackled, stymied and stuck.

Second, promotion to posts within the business tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Some GCs have become CEOs or COOs in the UK over the last 10 years, but, generally speaking, lawyers stick to lawyering. Consequently, career change is rarely part of their career management process.

Third, since CEOs and CFOs rarely say ‘let’s spend more on Legal’, cost-cutting and doing more for less are the norm. Except in rapid growth contexts, legal teams are usually contracting. Trying to find another role elsewhere becomes the main career focus. This process is difficult for the reasons I’ve just given.

Time to reflect

In the face of these challenges, in-house lawyers seeking a career change need to reflect carefully on why they they do what they do; how they intend to achieve those objectives; and what plan they will use to implement their strategy. 

With regard to the ‘why’ or personal purpose, motivation varies depending on why they went into law in the first place. Some drifted in, others were pushed in, although many chose law proactively.

Whatever your original reason, you are where you are, and now is a good time to review your current objectives. Whatever you decide, commit to that decision fully, because, as Goethe observed, when you commit things happen which otherwise would not have happened had you not committed.

Many in-house lawyers feel shackled, stymied and stuck … the level of frustration is often underestimated

Any in-house lawyer who is not a GC should focus on becoming one, or not, or switching to another role within the business. If you want to be a GC, your strategy should be to focus on visibly improving your leadership skills. If not, focus on being a specialist – be a conspicuous lover of your specialism. If you want to get a job in the business, tell the business what you do and spend time doing it, not observing it.

If you are a GC already, are you happy? By happy, I mean, do you pass the Fenton Career Happiness Test: on 75 per cent of Monday mornings, can you say ‘I love this’?

If you’re a GC at the top of the tree, scoring less than 75 per cent will be because: you’ve never properly addressed why you do what you do; your CEO is not taking care of you; or the business is in trouble. It could be a combination of all three. And, for the avoidance of doubt, it is the job of your CEO to help you thrive, as it is yours to help the legal team thrive.

Leaders must create an environment in which people thrive. That’s not optional. You may be laughing out loud at the notion that your CEO has this obligation to you, but stop laughing. Try asking for it. If you don’t model this leadership behaviour, no one else will.

Understanding strategy

But by far the most important career management advice I can give to in-house counsel, at whatever level, is to take responsibility for choosing to opt for a monthly direct credit into your bank account as opposed to slogging it out in private practice. By taking responsibility, I mean you must make it your business to understand the link between business strategy, legal strategy and your personal strategy at work.

Any in-house lawyer who is not a GC should focus on becoming one, or not, or switching to another role within the business.

It’s staggering the number of lawyers who don’t understand what business strategy is, let alone the strategy of the business in which they operate. That said, the same can be said for many in the business.

Just remember that strategy means how , not why. 

For example, if the strategy of the business is organic growth by being best at volume contracting in specific markets, and the strategy of Legal is to support this by making volume contracting as frictionless as possible, then where can you fit, visibly, into that strategy?

Do you understand the economics of your own legal department? Is it delivering more services than the business pays for, because lawyers never say no? On this point, I upset a number of lawyers at the 2016 In-House Division annual conference by daring to suggest that Legal should not ‘deliver 10 things for $7 if 10 things cost $10’. I make no apology for this approach, which I set out in full with supporting arguments in a pamphlet I wrote following a speech to the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) in Munich the previous year, entitled ‘The GC-CEO Relationship post Global Financial Crash: Flourish or Flounder’ .

In support of in-house counsel

The ACC, the Law Society and the profession at large are doing a lot to help members with their career management. But more can be done, particularly in reframing the role and purpose of in-house counsel, which I believe is not clear or uniform throughout businesses.

I propose that, in the interests of helping you achieve more fulfilling careers, you encourage the Law Society and the ACC to adopt three simple principles in support of in-house counsel.

  • The purpose of legal departments is to provide excellent legal counsel and process in support of business objectives and strategy
  • The strategy of Legal is to run the department as an internal business using all the art and science of business, with a strong emphasis on developing lawyer leaders
  • The plan for implementing Legal’s strategy is the delivery of an agreed schedule of services, no less but no more, within an agreed budget. The CEO must take responsibility for the risk associated with not paying for recommended services. The GC must have the courage not to deliver these recommended services, and to have the backs of their teams in doing so.

Overall, the career management problems facing most lawyers could be alleviated by the profession taking a much more businesslike approach to the provision of legal services within a business.