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How to successfully progress your in-house career

02 March 2016

Robert Bourns considers different career paths taken by four in-house lawyers, and looks at what lessons can be learned from their experiences.


In-house lawyers' career development was the subject of a packed post-work event held by our In-house Division recently, where a panel of four in-house lawyers called on their impressive experience to answer questions.

We've all been to speaker-meetings that filled in from the back, and where the chair asks the only questions. This certainly wasn't one of them - this generation of rising lawyers has been taught that enthusiasm counts and hands were up from the start.

We started with some striking accounts from the panelists - a civil service mandarin, head of legal at a national charity, a general counsel from the construction industry, and a senior lawyer from a pharmaceutical major - of their own career paths.

The first striking thing was that all had pursued and taken a staggering variety of roles. Two had started far from the legal profession - one in forensic pathology, the other in neuro-science.

They had found ways to move sector and legal discipline by using core skills that could do a good job in each. The civil servant, now a departmental director, had started in a magic circle firm, and done stints in departments far outside her comfort zone.

The charity head of legal had worked for a blue chip retailer, then turned gamekeeper by going to a consumer organisation. The construction GC had also worked for high-tech businesses, and the pharma lawyer had also worked for a big-four accountant. 'Wisdom' it was observed was different to legal knowledge, and grew in importance the further into their careers people went.

And so to the questions. All were very frank about their experiences. You need a good mentor or a coach, it was noted - with one opining that people at the top of organisations rarely admitted the help they had had in this regard.

Changing your path

When you change role or sector, don't be afraid to ask questions, and make an effort to really understand what the organisation does. If you've made a wrong move, one panelist noted, find a way to make the role interesting.

Other insights included, 'I never read CVs because I've never read a bad one', that people who made progress are ones that seem to 'shine - they grab every opportunity and therefore gain huge exposure', and the advice to 'make a list of five people you are going to get to know in the organisation'.

There were 150 people in the audience, and the ways they will need to work and behave to build a career in-house will become more common.

A third of the profession

As the recent Law Society report 'The Future of Legal Services' concludes, by 2020 we expect in-house lawyers to make up 35 per cent of the solicitor profession.

That 35 per cent will also depend heavily on their network of peers to succeed, not least because the flip side of being - rather excitingly - immersed in a company, public sector body or a charity, is that many lack the backup and infrastructure of a law firm. A large bank may have 1500-plus in-house lawyers, but they are the exception.

This is shown by other striking figures from our report - the 25,602 in-house lawyers who currently hold practicing certificates are spread across 6,345 offices. In that context, their peers are a very necessary source of support, advice and information.

It is this last point especially that is driving the Law Society's commitment to the activities of its in-house division - as the event showed, there is clearly the demand for it.

Find out more about the In-house Division

Read about our in-house engagement programme (PDF)

Attend our In-house Division annual conference (15 June)

Gazette article - Future of legal services: in-house

Tags: development | talent | education and training | in-house

About the author

Robert Bourns was the 172nd president of the Law Society. He is a senior partner at TLT Solicitors, where he specialises in employment law. Robert is one of five representatives for the City of London constituency, a member of the Law Society's Equality and Diversity Committee, and a member of the Regulatory Affairs Board Regulatory Processes Committee.
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