Thinking of a move in-house? Rachel Brushfield, career strategist and coach, explores how to plan the career you want in 2020 and shares career planning strategies and tips to help you get started.

In-house is a popular choice for a better work-life balance, without the pressure of fee-earning targets. If you’re thinking of a career in-house, this article will help you to create a focused strategy, with some practical tips from established in-house lawyers and a case study from a solicitor who has recently successfully moved from private practice to in-house.

Formulating a career strategy

‘Strategy’ is an over-used word, but it means ‘a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim’. To put an aim and strategy in place for yourself, you need to understand yourself in depth as to where you want to be. How would you evaluate your current level of self-awareness and knowledge of trends affecting work, business and the legal profession specifically? A career strategy is a structured approach to achieve the career vision that you define for yourself and covers skills, knowledge and experience, networks, support, career tools and resources. One useful career framework is:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Why am I there?
  3. Where could I be?
  4. How could I get there?
  5. How will I know that I have succeeded – what will be my success criteria?  

You need to take responsibility for your career and defining a career vision, strategy and plan is a practical way to do it. In-house jobs are growing and are a popular choice, but growth is starting to slow and competition is fierce with few jobs in certain areas, eg employment. How are you going to stand out?

Your career vision

A career vision is a statement about what you want to achieve in your career, the level you want to rise to, and the lasting impacts you hope to make through your work / career.

An example of a career vision is: ‘no 2 in legal department, reporting to the head of legal in a top 5 FTSE pharmaceutical company manufacturing products that reduce death rates and alleviate suffering in third world countries, with two direct reports, and earning £95,000 per annum.’  

How to create your career goal and action plan

Writing down your career goal, strategy and plan is empowering, and more likely to make it happen. Buy yourself a special notebook for your career and record notes here, and diarise a time each week regularly to work on specific actions so you move forward and gain momentum and a sense of progress.  

To set a meaningful career goal, you need to create your own definition of success (it will be different for different people), and understand your personal values. Consider:

  • What is important to you?
  • What motivates you?
  • What are your needs and wants (eg company culture, remuneration etc)?
  • What type of environment do you thrive in?

The more specific you can be, the clearer your objectives will be, and the more your network can help you.  

Just as you have KPIs for your current role, you need to set ones in respect of your career. For some people, money or status is the driving factor; for others it is continuous learning, new challenges, fulfillment or making a difference. This will influence what sectors and types of company you target, and ensure that the in-house roles you apply for have a close alignment, making the time you spend on career planning / management both expedient and motivating for you.  

Your career goal needs to be SMART: specific, motivating, action-oriented, realistic and timed. Breaking down your career goals into bite-sized timed steps, in the form of a structured action plan with clear headings, and blocking out time in your diary, will increase the likelihood of them being achieved. Starting with the outcome you are looking for and working back to the present is an effective technique which reduces any feeling of overwhelm.

Useful headings for your action plan could include: research, CPD, networking and career capital (writing articles, speaking at events, being on high profile committees etc). The Law Society has some useful webinars on various career topics located in the Professional Development Centre (PDC), its e-learning portal.

Examples of a focused action on your action plan are: ‘find an up-to-date report or book detailing work trends in 2020 and their impact on in-house roles in technology, food and pharmaceutical companies’ and ‘write a list of five questions about working in-house and email them to five contacts in my network who currently work in-house, giving a deadline of 10 days to reply’. 

Tips to get your career strategy moving

  • The Law Society is a vital resource – attend events run by the In-house Division, including its annual conference (held in June). The PDC has a wide array of learning materials available, and look too at the Society’s Careers pages with case studies, articles and blogs
  • Be proactive – contact employers who you want to work with
  • Be a conduit – set up a network and LinkedIn group for your specialism / interests
  • Expert support – get a career coach and/or mentor
  • Focused networking – attend special interest groups to hone your technical and non-technical skills
  • Role models – find role models and learn from them.  

Case study – Clary Maynard, legal counsel, WorldRemit

Clary Maynard was an associate working in private practice. She thought a move in-house would suit her, but wanted to make sure that any move would be fulfilling from both a personal and career perspective.

She enlisted the support of a career coach to help her to create a career strategy and long-term career vision, to plan her move in-house and to get a job which aligned with her values.

Clary did various coaching exercises to really understand herself and what she wanted, for example, what motivated her, what her personal values were, and what kind of company appealed to her. She updated her CV to target in-house roles and to demonstrate relevant skills and experience, defined her ideal role, downloaded the LinkedIn app, and prepared thoroughly for interviews. She achieved two in-house job offers that met her role brief – a quality but narrow role in an established charity, and a broader new role as legal counsel at an online money transfer company, reporting into the head of legal.

Clary says of her move in-house: ‘I really enjoy my in-house role and the variety it brings: engaging with different stakeholders and understanding their key drivers, thinking on my feet as stakeholders often appear at my desk with queries and appreciating the fine balance between being commercial and being legally compliant. I am constantly learning and broadening my skill set and I have been given as much responsibility as I can shoulder. Everyone is really engaged in growing the company and contributing to its success and I feel like I have an important part to play.

Your career vision, career strategy, SMART career goal and action plan will help you focus on building the qualities, skills, experience, knowledge and profile you need for an in-house role.

11 tips to get started

Block out time regularly and include these areas of focus in your continuing competence objectives. Here are 11 tips to get you started.

1. Develop interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence

Put yourself in other people’s shoes and show empathy (‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’) and hone your listening skills. Courses such as neuro-linguistic programming can help you to understand different people and their ‘maps of the world’. 

2. Broaden your network and mindset

Join your current employer’s sports team, get involved with its corporate social responsibility activities, or volunteer pro bono with a charity to broaden your network and experience. Seek out people who you would normally never speak with or come across in your working day, eg from different cultural backgrounds, professions, LGBT networks (if relevant) etc. Join LinkedIn groups for your specialism and ones helpful to your continuing competence goals.

Elizabeth Joyce, legal counsel at Lucy Group Ltd, says: ‘It is always useful for in-house lawyers to have experience of governance, but if there is no opportunity where you work, consider becoming a trustee of a charity or getting involved in a committee. Lawyers are recognised as having good contributions to make, and you will learn a lot from working in a different environment.’ 

3. Keep up to date with trends affecting work and the changing shape of the legal profession

The world of work and the legal profession are changing fast with the digital revolution, so making time to look at trends will help you to stay ahead of the game. The Law Society and the Legal Services Board have some useful information on their websuites, and you could try, books and blogs by Lynda Gratton, reports by Raconteur, free reports by management consultancies such as Hay, and various futurists including Rohit Talwar and Chrissie Lightfoot.  

4. Develop communication skills and step out of your comfort zone

Communication with a wide variety of people is part of an in-house role. There are a plethora of ways to improve your skills in this area, but a more novel idea is to join the public speaking organisation Toastmasters to develop your communication techniques in a more structured way and gain feedback on how to improve. The networking organisation Business Network International has groups all over the UK and the world, and requires you to speak for one minute every week. It provides other opportunities, such as occasional 10-minute presentations. 

5. Perfect responding when put on the spot

Many lawyers dislike being put on the spot. This is a skill you will need working in-house, so seek out opportunities to practise it now, eg speed networking, speed dating, debating societies, mock tribunals etc. Start by asking friends you trust to fire questions at you. 

6. Improve your business nous

Spend time with business people and ask them questions to build your knowledge. Read about business models and balance sheets. There is a large amount of high quality information widely available.  

7. Develop your commercial awareness

Do a course at a local college, get a mentor, study for an MBA, or seek out people in your network who have learnt this skill. Learn the language of business, revenues and, especially, the language of your target sector. 

8. Polish your time management skills

Watch relevant TED talks, read articles from respected experts such as Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 habits of highly effectively people’, or even invest in an office organiser or virtual PA to learn from their expertise.  

9. Build your knowledge library

Working in-house means you don’t have the same access to information as you do working in private practice. Plan ahead and speak with in-house lawyers about the resources they use, and think about how you can take steps now to build up your knowledge library. 

10. Create a support network

A support network can help you in practical and emotional ways, especially during a major career transition. Explore career coaching, attend industry networking events, join relevant LinkedIn groups and start following movers and shakers on Twitter. Find out which recruiters specialise in in-house roles and build relationships with them. Be proactive and ask for advice.

Identify potential mentors who are working or who have worked in-house. Toby Hornett, legal director, Canon Europe says: ‘It is very important to think at an early stage about who would be good mentors during your career – people that you trust. They don’t actually need to know you that well at the beginning of the mentoring relationship. Friends, parents and career advisers are probably not the best – you need objective advice.’ 

11. Develop strategic thinking

Detail is vital for a lawyer, but strategic thinking and seeing the bigger picture is even more important in-house – you need to understand the needs of the organisation and its stakeholders and decision makers, and see where you can add value. Who do you know who is good at strategic thinking? Shadow them, ask what models and tools they use, and for any book recommendations. Carve out time for deep thinking and read quality articles from titles such as the Harvard Business Review .

Learn more about in-house work and issues at our In-house Division annual conference 2017 on 17 June