In-House Career Paths – Potential Issues With Options for Career Happiness

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It seems more and more private practice lawyers want to move in-house. Even if lawyers successfully make that transition, they are often surprised to find that it isn’t necessarily the path to longterm career happiness. In-house lawyers face different career path issues than their private law firm peers. Rather than finding more job security and opportunity for advancement, they may have less. Corporate counsels’ futures are tied to the fortunes of a single entity in a volatile marketplace. Furthermore, corporate legal departments are hierarchical with one general counsel, one division counsel and so on. At least, theoretically, law firms may elect an unlimited number of partners. Often road blocked, in-house lawyers may wait quite some time, if ever, to progress within their current law department.

Potential Career Path Issues

No. 1 – Job Security. The in-house lawyers’ job security can be at risk because law departments are at the mercy of upper management’s business strategies and economic forces beyond their control. For example, after a merger, sale, acquisition or reorganization of all or part of the company, the law department may eliminate or let go of “duplicative” attorneys. Even if the legal department isn’t disbanded, new management may bring in its own team of senior executives, including legal personnel. Often, companies or divisions relocate requiring unwanted transfers. If a business declines, a division or entire company may downsize. Startups may not get their funding and need to cut back. The law department frequently is among the first to go because it’s a cost rather than profit center and may even be viewed as an impediment to accomplishing business goals. Of course, entire businesses or divisions simply may shut down leaving everyone without a job.

No. 2 – Automatic Advancement. Despite the many perks of working in-house, even at a financially stable company, you need to realize that there could still be one big drawback – very little room at the top. Corporations usually employ fewer lawyers than big law firms and in-house law departments tend to be organizationally flat. Advancement depends on a number of factors mostly out of your control, such as the size and structure of the department, the age of its attorneys, the health of the company, trends in the industry, or a combination thereof. If your boss is a competent, healthy, happy and not close to retirement age, there is nowhere to go. Therefore, even doing prodigious amounts of great work may not move you up the ranks.

Options to Counter Potential Career Path Issues

How does one detour these potential obstacles on the in-house road to career happiness? If you are currently in-house, stay proactive. Keep your eye on what is going on with your company in the marketplace. The more aware you are, the more you can plan appropriately. Options might include changing departments and career paths or sticking it out while redefining goals and expectations.

No. 1 – Changing Departments/Career Paths. If your career path is blocked either by a lack of job security of a dead end situation, you might change course by leveraging your business skills and moving from the legal department to another department such as compliance, general management, human resources, sales or marketing. For some lawyers, their initial goal was to segue out of the practice of law by moving from a law firm to an in-house legal department position and then, transitioning to the business side of the corporation. For others, that trajectory occurs as a career necessity.

If you think you might want to pursue the business-side option, look for companies where lawyers made such moves in the past. Some organizations have track records of transitioning their in-house lawyers into management or executive roles, while others virtually never do. Once hired, the lawyer needs to (1) network within the company so many people in many departments know them; (2) learn as many aspects of the business as possible; and (3) communicate their professional development desired goals.

We often help road blocked lawyers to springboard to a higher position in another company’s legal department, either in the same industry or a different sector where their skills transfer. Some lawyers fear that specializing in an industry may pigeonhole them, resulting in fewer career options when often it is exactly the opposite effect and a specialized industry lawyer is more attractive. To increase potential future opportunities in a specialized industry, choose an industry positioned for growth, such as health care, elder care, high technology or energy.

No. 2 – Same Position, Increased Satisfaction. Alternatively, if you are in a secure but dead-end position, you can seek other avenues of success without changing jobs. Instead, look outside your current position to find skill development opportunities. Some lawyers achieve personal satisfaction by making speeches and writing articles or polishing their expertise and becoming their company’s go-to authority on an arcane, but necessary subject. Other lawyers enjoy mentoring within their companies or participate in outside organizations by teaching at a local law school, college or paralegal program. Perhaps there is a cause you can assist with on a pro bono basis, or you might achieve recognition through a bar association or community leadership. If you shift your expectations of your current position, fulfilling all of your career satisfaction needs, a rich and rewarding career is possible without leaving your current position.

While many lawyers seek the advantages of an in-house law career, it can present road blocks and dead ends just like opportunities in private practice, governmental and nonprofit jobs. Keep these considerations in mind as you weigh your career options and plan your next career move. Jodi Standke

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