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Inside Straight: In-House Career Paths

Career paths are easy at big law firms: As an associate, stay fully occupied doing great work, and become a partner. As a junior partner, stay fully occupied doing great work, and become a powerful partner. As a senior partner, generate enough business to keep you and others fully occupied, and become an even richer and more powerful partner.

These things may or may not be attainable, but everyone understands the career path.

Things are much trickier in-house. Corporations tend to have fewer lawyers than big law firms do, and in-house law departments tend to be flatter. Turnover tends to be less common. Six or eight people often report up to a single supervisor. In that environment, staying fully occupied and doing great work may not move you up the ranks. You can be fully occupied doing great work, but your boss is competent, happy in her job, not close to retirement age, and in good health. She’s going nowhere, so you have nowhere to go in the corporation.

The corporation can actually be very good to its lawyers — investing in leadership and management training, using incentive or equity compensation, and employing other tools for recognizing achievements — but still fall short in actually creating career paths that make sense.

How do corporations create career paths for their in-house lawyers?

Corporate law departments tend to answer that question in two ways.

First, in-house lawyers can often “graduate” from the law department into the business. “You’ve worked diligently as our in-house real estate lawyer for five years. Congratulations! We’re promoting you to being a site selection specialist who will work in the business unit to pick locations for our new stores.”

That route can occasionally be a happy one. Lawyers who work in-house will naturally tend to learn the business in which they work, and they may develop an interest in working on the revenue-production side of the organization. But that’s not a particularly satisfying career path for someone who went to law school because he wanted to be a lawyer. The corporation may view moving “up” into the business as a promotion, but the switch may involve changing the lawyer’s career aspirations.

The second way that in-house law departments create career paths is by giving lawyers “stretch projects” — latching a specialist lawyer onto a different lawyer (or business person) to permit the specialist to learn new skills. For example, an intellectual property lawyer could be asked to serve as the business counsel for a small business unit, supported by one of the full-time counsels to another business unit. This would give the IP lawyer a chance to work more closely with his business (and inventors) and to learn the contract, employment, and other issues that arise in the business.

Stretch projects can be a win-win situation for the lawyer and the corporation. The lawyer learns more skills, and the corporation develops a more talented employee. But that doesn’t overcome the inherent limits on career paths imposed by a pyramidal structure — unless a job opens up, there’s nowhere to go (except to a different corporation, which hardly serves the employer’s interest).

Law firms, too, have pyramidal structures, and it’s plainly not possible for the hordes at the bottom all to rise to the top. But it’s easier for law firms to maintain the fiction of unlimited career opportunities, insisting that the partnership is open to all qualified associates and that a partner can always improve her lot through superior performance. Without the luxury of that fiction, in-house law departments must think more creatively about how to keep their lawyers satisfied with the progress of their careers.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at

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