Building Skills, Willingness to Learn Propel Corporate Counsel Careers
28 July 2020
Advancing an in-house legal career requires building legal skills and industry and company knowledge, as well as trust.
Most in-house lawyers join companies after building desirable corporate skills in a private law firm. Once there, paths to future growth may be nontraditional, depending on the company’s size.
One challenge for corporate counsel who want to move up is that many smaller companies have flat legal department hierarchies, so advancement may require moving to another company. Larger organizations will have deputy general counsel levels as well as specific subject matter experts such as intellectual property counsel and employment counsel, notes Steven Lynch, general manager of the National Legal Division for the Lucas Group executive recruiting firm, based in its Atlanta office.
“If the ultimate career goal is the general counsel seat, an attorney has to seek out projects and experience outside of their practice area so that they can compete for the top role, which is usually awarded to a well-rounded attorney (from a subject matter and personality standpoint) that has supervised a team, hired and fired, worked with boards of directors, managed a P&L, etc.,” Lynch said. “Someone seasoned, trained in multiple substantive areas, and capable of wearing more than just their lawyer hat.”
Average salaries depend on the level, company, location and industry, but below the executive level (general counsel, chief legal officer, deputy general counsel), Lynch said, in-house counsel can earn an average of $180,000 to $200,000 and bonuses from 20%-40%.
The path to get there often starts with private practice with a law firm immediately following law school. “Occasionally new graduates will go ‘in-house’ directly from law school but that is outside of the norm,” Lynch said.
Other attorneys have moved into in-house counsel roles from working as outside counsel for the company, or through other relationships and networking, noted Heather Asher, general counsel and corporate secretary for CCUR Holdings Inc. in Duluth.
“My sense is that we are seeing an increase in less traditional paths,” Asher said, “primarily attorneys first working in contract or part-time in-house positions that may led to permanent in-house positions. This is the path that worked for me and it may be an easier path for attorneys that do not have direct expertise in a company’s industry or a corporate law background. I came from a corporate bankruptcy background, which is probably less typical, and began my first in-house position three years ago at my current company. At the time, I was hired for a temporary six-month contract position, but building relationships and good timing led to a permanent position. Around the time my contract was coming to an end, I was offered a full-time position as the sole attorney for my company. It was an unexpected opportunity and came during a time of significant change for the company as it was finishing a sale process.”
Corporate legal department roles are sought-after because an in-house legal department is perceived as providing a better balance and quality of life than at a private law firm, where long hours and stress are common, Lynch said.
“In my experience attorneys that ultimately want to transition their career from private practice to an in-house track begin to consider a move to a corporation as early as three years out of law school, but the average tenure is probably closer to five years of private practice as an associate,” he said.
Those hoping for an in-house career often will seek firm training in a practice area that is typically in demand for a corporation such as general corporate transactions (M&A, securities), commercial contracts, employment, IP licensing and technology transactions, and privacy and data security, Lynch said.
“Generally speaking transactional areas are more commonly in demand by corporations and, therefore, easier for a transactional attorney to transition from private practice to an in-house position as opposed to a litigator, as companies still tend to outsource most of their litigation to an outside law firm,” he said.
The current risk environment, however, has moved up interest in litigation skills, said Ashoo Sharma, vice president and general counsel for Harry Norman, Realtors.
“Lawyers with litigation skills have become attractive to CEOs because they are considered to add greater value in crisis management and mitigating a quickly developing situation,” she said. “A skill that may be difficult to learn is the ability to be strategic, to anticipate issues and estimate risks, but litigation attorneys are considered to have more experience and ability to ‘see around these corners’ than transactional attorneys,” according to Sharma.
For attorneys who want to move in-house, opportunities to act as outside counsel should be handled deliberately and with the highest business acumen and executive judgment so the company can see your broader concern for the organization rather than just the issues of the individual case, she said.
“Giving tips on risk prevention and management to avoid the same problem happening again can be a game-changer as well as sharing hot topics in the industry to bring that business current and competitive. Act like an owner and that way, they do not just see you as their outside ‘courtroom lawyer’ but rather a ‘business partner’ they will want to add to their executive table when the opportunity arises,” Sharma said.
Getting that first position with a company is generally the hardest hurdle for an attorney, Lynch said.
“However, once an attorney gets invited into the ‘in-house’ club, their career trajectory has a number of options. Depending on the organization, there is a typical hierarchy that allows for a career advancement — in title, scope, compensation, etc.; however, legal departments can be flat, so we (recruiters) see a lot of movement from company to company, which is often required if an attorney is seeking to advance to a role with more responsibility and that opportunity doesn’t exist or requires someone to leave in order to move up.”
Corporate counsel levels and titles vary slightly from company to company but, in general, a junior or mid-level associate would move to a company as ‘counsel’ with the next step at around seven or eight years to senior counsel, followed by associate or assistant general counsel, he said.
Some of the skills that help position a corporate counsel for promotion include gaining experience building and managing a team; being seen as a legal department leader through offering trainings and updates on changing regulations or new tools and technology related to areas of high concern/risk, such as cyber security or data privacy; partnering with business unit leaders and helping them advance a growth or product initiative, including becoming comfortable with a reasonable amount of risk to move the business forward; and finding a mentor at or near the level sought, said Lynch, also noting that honest, consultative recruiters can be resources for upwardly mobile corporate counsel.
Sharma highlighted the value of soft skills such as strategic thinking and emotional intelligence.
“In addition to technical skills, corporate counsel should have ability to solve a problem or achieve a result calmly and intelligently because the company is not in the business of litigating — it is in the business of providing goods and services to customers. ‘Executive presence’ skills are important for any in-house lawyer,” she said. “Although executive presence is highly intuitive and difficult to pin down, it ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.
“This is hard to teach but it may be practiced and you can learn from experience – good and bad; also, the processes used for good decision-making and relationship-building can be enhanced, and there are leadership programs that can help you build these skills,” Sharma said.
In addition to flat legal departments, challenges for ambitious in-house counsel include becoming too specialized, such as an attorney trained in labor and employment law at a private firm who joins a corporation as employment counsel. Such an attorney may have trouble gaining exposure in general corporate transactional areas such as M&A, commercial real estate, and IP property/licensing, that are needed to move up the in-house ladder to a deputy general counsel or general counsel level, Lynch said.
In smaller companies with limited opportunities for advancement, in-house attorneys can find satisfaction and grow their abilities to serve their internal clients by taking on new responsibilities and seeking out additional roles within the company, Sharma and Asher suggested.
“A better way to see the in-house career path for succession planning may be ‘professional development’ rather than linear promotion and such development has potential of turning lawyer into entrepreneur or corporate executive. There are many lawyers turned CEOs,” Sharma said. “To accomplish advancement, you should ask your superior to make professional development initiatives part of your evaluation, compensation and promotion process,” she said.
Advancement opportunities can be more limited at smaller companies, but there can also be more creative options as these companies are often more flexible (assuming they are not highly regulated), Asher said. For example, there may be more flexibility to modify or add to an attorney’s title to reflect new legal functions that come into play as the company grows, such as a compliance title to reflect increased compliance restrictions. “Adding a title to reflect an increased workload may be an easier sell for companies with tight budgets as it shows that the promotion is directly tied to the increased value being provided by the in-house legal department. There may also be enhanced opportunities to interact with the business teams in a smaller company, which can provide advancement opportunities on the business side,” Asher said. “I have seen in-house attorneys obtain promotions by adding business functions to their legal duties (and thus a new title) or by completely switching to a business role.”
How in-house counsel can prepare to advance
- Producing high quality work consistently
- Develop an ability to work quickly and creatively
- Have solid communication skills
- Offer an ambitious and “value-adding” attitude
- Cultivate sound business judgment
- Demonstrate analytical skills
- Be an ambassador of your business
- Treat internal clients and external clients (i.e. vendors) with respect
- Foster positive relationships and be likeable
- Balance company goals with the right amount of business risk
- Be relied upon doing what is right even when it is difficult
- Do whatever it takes to gain experience building and managing a team.
- Volunteer for projects that provide new experiences outside of your core strengths and practice area.
- Become a visible and vocal leader in the legal department – offer trainings or updates on changing regulations or share information on new tools and technology related to areas of high concern/risk: for example, cyber security, data privacy.
- Partner with business unit leaders and help them advance a growth or product initiative. Become OK with a reasonable amount of risk to move the business forward; be an idea and thought contributor to the business with creative solutions, not just risk analysis and legalese that can be perceived as an impediment to the bottom line. Become a strategic business partner, not just a lawyer with a tendency to say “no.”
- Find a mentor at or near the level you’re seeking to achieve in your existing or another organization to provide you career advice
- Call an honest, consultative recruiter to provide you advice and anecdotal examples of candidates that have accomplished similar goals. Allow that recruiter to be a part of your career journey as a trusted advisor and the eyes and ears in the market for compensation intel, new opportunities and general guidance on advancing your career.
Sources: Ashoo Sharma; Steven Lynch
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