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How To Climb The In-house Legal Ladder To GC

How to climb the in-house legal ladder to GC

As a private practice lawyer, there is a clear, structured path to partnership but this is often not as clear when working in-house. So how does a junior lawyer climb the ladder to become a future Head of Legal/ General Counsel (GC)?

Your mentor is key

Working for a fully invested general counsel GC and company will pay dividends. For instance, look at Dan Kayne’s (O shaped Lawyer) model which discusses a ‘people first’ approach to a legal career. It is important to work together, take opportunities and gain the broadest experience possible whether this is via internal secondments, rotation into another team or internal / external training courses.

Take control

The emphasis will also be on you to take ownership of your career, reviewing regularly where the gaps are in your experience and discussing with your mentor and the general counsel in your team to see how you can develop in these areas. Where this is not possible you may need to look externally to find a strategic move where you can continue your professional development (legal expertise, leadership abilities and business acumen)

Large corporate vs SME

Both have their advantages. Working in a larger corporate will give you excellent exposure to high quality work however due to the size of the legal team you may well end up in a much more specialised position and will need to look for opportunities internally (Uk and internationally) or potentially externally to continue your own development and broaden out your legal expertise.

Working for an SME often will give exposure to a much wider spectrum of work giving you the tools to step into a Head of position potentially earlier on in your career.

Maintaining a strong network and being visible

Building a strong network within the in-house legal/General Counsel / private practice community and with trusted recruiters will help give you the opportunity to sense check how you are progressing and seek out potential opportunities which offer the scope for you to continue developing you legal, business and leadership skills. Taking part in company management courses can also be an excellent way to build your network / visibility.

Securing a Head of / GC opportunity

There can be a degree of luck, of being in the right place at the right time and being visible within your company these opportunities may well open up to you internally via growth / succession planning however where this isn’t possible your network will be key.  Develop strong relationships with search firms and law firm partners and leverage your online presence.

To give some real insight / hope for those budding GCs of the future we surveyed 100 General Counsel within the renewable energy sector in the UK and internationally.

  • 38% were promoted internally to GC
  • 20% of those hired externally were experienced GC’s
  • 42% of those hired externally stepped up into GC position
  • of the 62 % hired externally 22% moved from private practice

Given the growth of the renewable energy market and in particular new SME entrants we can see from our survey there is excellent scope for ambitious lawyers coming from in-house and private practice to make the step up to General Counsel.

There is, however, a much larger percentage of hires from lawyers already ready working in-house and of those we surveyed moving from private practice some 40% already had a prior working relationship with the company they joined.

I would therefore recommend for those early on in their careers to give as much thought as possible into whether you are looking to stay in private practice or move in-house because ultimately having a broad in-house career will significantly enhance the odds of you securing a GC position.

While becoming a General Counsel is the ultimate goal for many, offering significant leadership, influence and impact on a business it is worth considering for many lawyers working as a Senior Lawyer  in-house can also offer a very rewarding career giving you autonomy and adding significant value to the business without having the additional GC responsibilities.

Ultimately, there is no one exact rubric or determined career path that will guarantee a GC or Head of Legal role but these are some steps that work time and time again. Please get in touch if you’d like to hear more of our advice.

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