May 18, 2017

How to Succeed as an In-House Lawyer: Three Tips on Career Development for the Inside Counsel

Jonathan Mothner

When I landed my first position as an in-house lawyer many years ago, I recall thinking that I really had no clue how to advance my career within the company, or even what career development opportunities were available to be pursued. I had just left the U.S. Attorney’s office, where career development paths were relatively clear and well-marked. Prior to that I’d been at a major New York law firm, where the career path was even clearer. In looking back, I certainly could have benefitted then from some of the lessons that I learned the hard way over the next 16 years. I share some of those lessons below in the hope that others may avoid, or at least minimize, some of the mistakes and miscues I made along the way.

Define What “Success” Means to You

Before setting out on any journey, it’s generally a good idea to have some sense of where you’d like to end up. The same is typically true in career planning for the in-house lawyer. Not that you’re necessarily going to end up where you think. Indeed, more often than not, you wind up in an entirely different place career-wise. Rather, having a sense of where you’d like to end up helps you formulate a strategy that you can at least begin to execute on.

For example, I started my in-house career as a specialist in litigation. One of my earliest decision points I recall was whether I wanted to remain a specialist and pursue opportunities within my specialty, or attempt to seek generalist opportunities outside my specialty. As I learned, there are puts and takes associated with either option. If you decide to remain a specialist, the development path is typically more linear (specialist roles with successively more seniority), however, as you move up in the organization, the number of those roles generally diminishes (most organizations only have one Chief Litigation Counsel, for example). If you decide to go the generalist route, there may be more opportunities available (multiple divisional Deputy GC and GC roles, for example), however, you may have to make a lateral move or even take a step down in order to develop the experience necessary to eventually be considered for more senior generalist roles.

Another option may be to pursue a non-legal role. Again, there are similar puts and takes. More opportunities, but typically a less linear path. You’ll also need to consider whether you have the requisite expertise for the role (your legal training may not have prepared you sufficiently well for that senior data analytics role). It’s also true that once you leave the legal department, it may be more difficult to get back in, or at least to get back in at the level of seniority that you would like.

Finally, if your only definition of success is to be the general counsel at the highest level of your company, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Many in-house legal departments have tens, hundreds, or even thousands of lawyers and there is typically only one group general counsel. It may simply be an unrealistic goal for you to pursue. Instead of defining success by job title, consider perhaps defining it as being interested in and challenged by the work you’re doing, energized by the contributions you’re making to your team and your company, recognized and compensated appropriately, and being excited to come to work every day. That way, you’ll be more likely to feel successful.

Be Brutally Honest With Yourself

The truth can hurt, but often is very helpful. A truly candid assessment of your strengths and weaknesses can be very important in helping you achieve your career aspirations. There are at least two good reasons for this. First, if you know your strengths and weaknesses well, you can plan career moves around them. For example, if you know you’re not the best drafter in the world, you may think twice about applying for a senior M&A role. Conversely, if you really want to develop that skill, you may be willing to take the risk. While there is certainly some merit to taking a role in order to better develop an area of weakness, there is also a risk that you won’t develop as quickly as you would like, which may impact your performance. In any event, if you understand your strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be in a better position to make a more informed choice about your next role.

Second, understanding your strengths and weaknesses may provide an opportunity to address development areas before someone points them out to you. If you recognize an area where you have an opportunity to develop and improve, you can be certain that at some point others will recognize it as well, if they haven’t already. Being aware of these areas and taking proactive steps to address them will not only be very viewed positively by stakeholders, but will also make you a better all-around in house lawyer.

Lastly, self-awareness and a healthy understanding of your strengths and weaknesses are signs of maturity, judgment, and good leadership. More than anything, these are the qualities that the senior leaders of your company will be looking for in their most senior in-house lawyers.

Own Your Own Career Development

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard in-house lawyers grumble that the company for whom they work and the legal department aren’t doing enough to help them develop their careers. Often this is a legitimate complaint. Companies and legal departments have a responsibility to provide clear guidance on how lawyers and professionals can advance their careers and should make resources and training available to help them accomplish this. Having said that, it’s up to the lawyers themselves to be proactive about their career development and to take advantage of the resources that companies, and external sources, provide.

The most successful in-house lawyers don’t wait for their next role to come to them. They plot out where they would like to go next and take the steps necessary to get there. These steps include building out a network of supporters, both inside and outside the legal department. Decisions on how to fill open roles often involve discussions among and recommendations by the stakeholders who have some connection to the roles. If you’ve developed a good strong network that includes these stakeholders, you’re much more likely to at least be part of the conversation about filling the role.

Other steps include taking full advantage of opportunities that are presented to you. If you’re lucky enough to get a plum new assignment that will give you senior management exposure or are given expanded responsibilities in your current role, this is your time to shine. Nothing will set you up better to advance within the company than knocking it out of the park in these situations. Be careful to avoid grandstanding, but make sure there’s no question that you outperformed when you were given the opportunity.

Lastly, nothing is more likely to ensure success than success. While keeping a close eye on your career development is very important, never lose focus on your day job. Being exceptional at what you do and exceeding expectations are table stakes in the career advancement game. Nothing will derail you more quickly than consistent poor performance. So, the very first step in developing and advancing your career as in-house lawyer is doing everything you can to be an excellent in-house lawyer at the outset.

Jonathan Mothner

Jonathan Mothner is Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Synchrony Financial.