It’s hard to create career paths for in-house lawyers.

It’s easy to describe the career path for a junior lawyer at a law firm (even though the path may be illusory for many): Work hard and well and become a partner; work harder and better and become a richer and more powerful partner. Retire. Die.

So long as law firms are growing, that path appears to be available to some percentage of junior lawyers, and all can strive to follow it.

Corporations are different. There’s one general counsel, who probably has six or eight people reporting to her. Unless the general counsel moves on, retires, or dies, none of the lieutenants is moving up. The lieutenants in turn all have six or eight people reporting to them. Unless a lieutenant moves on, retires, or dies, none of the sub-lieutenants is moving up.

What can you do to create a career path for someone who reports to you in a corporation (other than eating poorly and exercising little, which might create an unexpected opening in the ranks)?

You could change the whole concept of career development. At law firms, senior lawyers think primarily of training junior lawyers to remain at the firm: “If we train great lawyers, we’ve trained the next generation of partners, and they’re the future of the firm.” Most firms think only incidentally about training people to leave the firm: “If we train great lawyers, we can move those folks into in-house positions, and they’ll become clients of the firm.” And firms don’t think at all about training lawyers to work for the competition. To the contrary, the instant a lawyer moves laterally to a competitive law firm, the lateral’s former colleagues immediately realize that the lateral was a bum all along, and the firm is actually lucky to be rid of the deadbeat. (“I’m an old-timer here. I remember back when that bum Joe Smith was a good lawyer.”)

Suppose you think differently about career development. Suppose you recognize that there isn’t room at your place to move everyone up through the ranks, so you train people to help them grow wings; you affirmatively give people the ability to move on. This isn’t a new or creative idea. (Give me a break; you’re reading it here, for heaven’s sake.) But the idea is worth considering at in-house law departments.

When Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric, he knew full well that he was training people for careers at other companies. There was a time in 2005 when five of the Dow 30 had CEOs who had grown up at GE. Welch wasn’t surprised to see that happen. In fact, it was part of the plan: If you went to GE, you got great training, which prepared you for a great career either at GE or elsewhere. This actually improved the quality of GE’s workforce.

What prompted me to write this post was hearing recently from the CFO of a Fortune 500 company that he trained people for jobs outside his own company: “I’m relatively young, and I’m not going anywhere any time soon. If I don’t train my direct reports how to be the CFO of another company, those people will quit. The only way to retain our best people is to enable them to leave.” (It’s a good thing that guy’s a CFO and not a logician.)

“I actually keep my employees longer by providing training that enables them to leave. When they leave, they often become good institutional friends, because they appreciate what we’ve done for them. And I don’t think I’m violating any obligation that I owe to my company by doing this. I’m allowed to consider the best interests of employees, rather than just the best interests of the corporations, when everyone’s best interest points in the same direction.”

What would that approach mean for an in-house law department? The chief employment lawyer would look at his direct reports and think about what each of them must learn to displace the chief employment lawyer. “Jones doesn’t have any experience in executive compensation. I must find some opportunities for Jones in that area.” “Smith has never supervised litigation. We must peel off a set of cases and teach Smith what’s involved.” And so on.

For lawyers who grew up at law firms, that’s a new and different mindset. But once lawyers move into a world of limited career paths, lawyers must think creatively about how to train others and how to envision career paths that include upward mobility and the opportunity for ever-increasing challenges through the years. If those career paths cannot exist within your own company, then think about training folks to pursue opportunities elsewhere.


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 inhouse@abovethelaw.com.


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