3 practical ways to accelerate your career as an in-house lawyer

The LBCambridge programme was established in 2006 by LBC Wise Counsel as a residential skills development programme for in-house lawyers. The 23rd LBCambridge took place at Queens’ College, Cambridge in September 2017 brilliantly supported by Lexis Nexis.

The traditional opening keynote session on the first full day is developed around themes which the delegates identify as their most pressing issues. We ask the delegates what is “top of mind”, then discuss and debate these ideas with them and then distil these conversations into a presentation. The presentation seeks to build on the concerns, opportunities and ambitions of the delegates attending the programme.

This time one theme was overwhelmingly at the forefront of their thinking. Just how do you develop a career when some, or all, of the following list applies?

  1. Promotion is impossible until someone leaves
  2. There is no budget
  3. My boss doesn’t have time to be truly interested in my career development.

The short, but perhaps not so helpful answer is to think about leaving. It is not intended as a flippant remark. If you are genuinely in such a role and you genuinely cannot make it work differently for you, why would you stay for very long?

My advice for all in-house lawyers whether you are in the most fulfilling place you can imagine or somewhere quite different is to firmly and actively take responsibility for your development. Do not leave this to a hard-pressed (possibly equally under-developed boss) or to a generic HR inspired offering that might tick boxes but is somewhat short of real development.

Some straight-talking first, why would you trust your most precious asset – your career – to chance, or to a boss who is as tired and put-upon as you, or to an HR solution bought years before for generic L&D purposes? The answer must be that you should not do so. You must own your career narrative and manage the detail of your career development.

I’ll use round numbers to be illustrative rather than accurate, but let’s suppose you are 30 years old and currently earning a salary with bonuses that is worth up to £100k a year. If your salary flat lines you will have earned £3m by the time you are 60.

A rhetorical question, but what do you think it would take for you to be to be in a job that pays £125k or £175k or £250 over the next 5 to 10 years? In doing so you might double or even triple your earning potential and be more fulfilled too. I am almost certain that for almost everyone the answer is not “to know more law”. The answer will be to have more experiences and to have developed my credentials to make a bigger contribution.

For most people it will take a lot of development. Your responsibility therefore is to work out what development you need to have, to plan to get it and to learn from it.

You know already that in such a competitive world you will be up against really good candidates every time you put yourself forward for a new role. If those other candidates have developed their skills, their experience and their insights, and you have not done so as well, quite simply you lose. While nothing is guaranteed (ever) there is zero downside in taking a more thoughtful and active approach to your development and plenty to suggest you will increase the probability of success.

However before this sounds all a bit “me, me, me!” a more confident you with more experience and more to offer is a wonderful asset for your team and your business. It is the epitome of a mutual gains strategy.

So, what is to be done? I think there are three mindset shifts to make and three practical steps to take. Instead of getting in touch with Paul should we link them to blog competency statement or IHA demo offer?

Mindset shifts:

  1. What are you waiting for? If you are saying to me that you are too busy to even think about career development you are effectively saying that you are beyond helping yourself. This is almost the very definition of a self-destructive behaviour.
  2. Ask, don’t whine. Ask for help, ask for insight and ask for time. If there is little or no budget, I think it perfectly reasonable to at least ask for some time to work on your development needs.
  3. Stay visible. Do not shrink away into being so immersed in the day-to-day that you are always left behind or over-looked. Press to be involved, be interested and stay alive to the possibilities.

Practical steps to take:

  1. Take your CV today and ask to see a generic role description for a role that is two grades above yours. What are the gaps you have to close? Where are you weaker? You now have a very practical insight into what you need to do. Take the next two years, break it down into eight quarters and plan to do something in each quarter that pushes you to close the gaps you have identified.
  2. A typical conundrum is that you want to be a manager of people, but that you cannot get management experience. However it is important not to conflate being a manager with just line reporting. Think of yourself as a leader right now and start to lead – ask to chair meetings, seek out a project to lead, take ownership for describing a value to everything you do? Join a charity board, become a school governor or mentor new joiners (not necessarily lawyers either). In short, show you are developing your management capability.
  3. Keep a development journal. What have you done and what are you planning to do? How effective was it. Use your network too. What development do others have? Can you access this development? Can you press your law firms to do more than generic black-letter law updates? In essence start to use the world around you to support you. If you are in turn generous with others this is something full of joy. To truly learn from the experience of others is a gift you can both humbly receive and generously pass on. View our Competency Framework.

To all in-house lawyers (especially if you are in impossibly flat and perhaps seemingly stale structures), be the author of your development and write the script for your starring role; you should never accept having to be an extra in someone else’s B-movie.

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