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How to Get Ahead: Career Advancement for In-House Counsel

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

If you ask typical young lawyers how they envision their career path, you'll likely hear a pretty uniform response. Join a big firm, perhaps after clerking. After a few years as an associate, become a junior partner. Divorce. Work your way to senior partner and wonder where your life went. Of course, plenty of lawyers will change course half way, leaving to hang their own shingle, work for a nonprofit, or take up a new career -- but the usual path is clear.

For in-house counsel? Not so much. Career paths and career advancement for corporate counsel can vary greatly between industries, companies, and individuals. However, some general patterns remain common across in-house careers.

Don't Worry, Be Happy -- or Leave the Company

One of the main problems ambitious young in-house counsel encounter is satisfaction. Not theirs, everyone else's. Since in-house legal departments tend to be smaller and flatter than law firms, the more satisfied everyone is, the less likely there is to be turn over. Without turn over, especially in higher ranking positions, there is significantly less opportunity for advancement in the company.

In-house lawyers typically deal with this in two ways. First, you can seek career advancement by leaving the company. Going from a mid-level in-house position in a large corporate legal department to GC at a smaller company isn't unheard of. Alternatively, you can focus your career path within your company. This often means leaving the legal department or expanding your legal specializations.

Thought you wanted to be a lawyer? Well, guess what, you're way better at putting together deals, acquiring new properties, or managing human resources. Many in-house lawyers advance by moving from the legal department to another aspect of the business. It's a natural progression, as most lawyers will learn the business as they work and many will want to take a more hands-on roll in its development. At a smaller company, this can often happen sooner, especially when in-house counsel are deeply involved in the day-to-day activities of the company.

Alternatively, lawyers who want to remain in the legal department expand their career paths by learning new skills and specializations. A lawyer who was brought on to handle intellectual property may find herself working more on employment or contract issues. This allows the development of a new skill set, and keeps in-house counsel from feeling bored or unchallenged, and can also make in-house lawyers more competitive should they seek further career advancement in another company. This path is more typical of larger companies with expansive legal departments, where in-house lawyers are usually much more specialized.

Of course, in-house counsel need not limit themselves to the career paths described here. After all, part of the adventure of taking the road, or career path, less traveled is making your own way.

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