Could Corporate Counsel be the Next Step in Your Career?

With long hours, time-sheet pressures and demanding clients in private practice, it’s no wonder many lawyers look to the hallowed halls of company life when considering their next career move.

How do you determine whether a move into the corporate counsel field is the right fit for you? And if you’re set on the idea of moving in-house, how do you shift into this competitive space and develop your career after life in private practice or the government sector?

Reality check

According to Karen Dillon, former editor of Harvard Business Review, people place so much emphasis on achieving the esteemed ‘general counsel’ title that they don’t always anticipate the reality of life in that position.

After speaking with a number of general counsels of Fortune 100 companies, Karen learnt that keeping yourself motivated, growing and achieving throughout your career is just as important as the well-honed legal skills that got you there.

The reason you need to grow in the role is because it isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds, and you’ll need to keep yourself motivated and learning to stay hungry. Tom Sager, former general counsel of DuPont, said his predecessor had warned him that 85 per cent of the general counsel job was “stuff he didn’t like doing”.

Some of those tasks may include exchanging emails and phone calls with internal staff and business managers about day-to-day operational matters, interpreting governing documents and liaising with external lawyers.

So why do eager lawyers covet the corporate counsel role, and what kind of skills and experience do you need to nail it?

Why choose this role?

For starters, the opportunity for growth is immense in the right company. As Dillon points out, a company is far more likely to morph and change than a law firm, and if you’re interested in being part of all aspects of the business with a hands-on approach, you’re probably a great candidate for the role.

Some benefits may include more interesting work, shorter hours, potentially lucrative stock options and the opportunity to be on the business side in a dynamic corporate environment.

Further, in line with Frederick Herzberg’s oft-cited motivation theory, it seems as though the general counsel role brings on the right kind of motivation factors – the type of factors that really make us love our job and not just hate it, such as recognition and reward, responsibility, challenging work and personal growth.

Working in line with your core values and contributing to a business in a meaningful way is far more likely to lead to a deep sense of personal satisfaction and career longevity.

Is there a dark side?

The top job may come at a price, so you need to decide if it’s worth the risk. According to Casey Berman, writing for Above the Law, while some corporate counsels are viewed as a valuable resource, many internal employees automatically stereotype company lawyers as mere ‘red tape’, as an expense or as an obstacle to be avoided.

It’s common to hear stories about in-house lawyers not being able to work on challenging matters as they have to farm it out to external lawyers so they can focus on more routine tasks. It can also be hard to jump back into legal practice once you’ve stepped outside the private practice arena – you’ll have to get used to being the client when you brief external law firms, and you’ll need to manage the legal budget with aplomb.

If none of this is up your alley, you may want to stay in private practice or your current legal role.

The skills you’ll need

In a highly popular Harvard Business Review piece in 1999, Peter Drucker referred to the skills required to “manage yourself”, which is exactly what you’ll need to do as GC.

“You’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself – not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution,” says Drucker. “Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.”

So what are the primary skills and traits you’ll need to have in spades (or develop along the way)?

• Self-motivation.
• Self-awareness.
• Leadership qualities.
• Flexibility.
• Ability to work well under pressure.
• Creative, strategic thinking.
• Decisiveness.

Make sure you show how your particular legal skills and personal qualities help to achieve the company’s collective goal, as well as being able to provide legal advice and assistance to minimise risk. If you think you can add value to a company and you’re in need of a new challenge, corporate counsel could be the right move for you.

For more, check out this video from an In-house Counsel Roundtable where panellists discuss the timing of the private practice to in-house transition.

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