In-House Counsel, Money

Moonlighting: Why Just Being a Great Lawyer Won’t Get You a Promotion

In-house promotions are tricky. There are so many different kinds of companies, and so many things that can go wrong when you’re looking for a promotion. Some companies are upfront about the process: they’ll inform you if you’re being considered, let you know which committees need to approve, etc. Others are kind of like, “Uh, promotion, what’s that?,” and then they’ll just drop one on you when you least expect it, and run away (not that you’d complain about it).

Here are a couple of the obvious considerations that the powers-that-be will take into account when deciding whether you are worthy of attainment of the next level:

1. Do you do good work (i.e., do you have good legal/technical skills)?

2. Do you have good soft skills? Remember, from my last couple of posts — this covers everything from effective communication, to leadership, to being tasked with convincing your peers that going as breakdancing elves to the holiday party can show the rest of the company that Legal can be fun, too! Soft skills make or break a lot of promotion opportunities, and your superiors are looking for them. For example, one very senior in-house attorney mentioned that having courage of your convictions — to speak up (in an appropriate manner and in the appropriate venue) when you think a strategy is flawed, or when you think you have a better idea — is what distinguishes a leader from the rest of the pack.

Alright, so let’s say that you have #1 and #2 covered. And you’ve made it absolutely clear that you want a promotion (and “I was wondering if, uh, you noticed what a good job I did on that contract the other day” doesn’t count). You should start evaluating color schemes for that larger office you’ve been eyeing, right? Well, don’t switch your name plate over just yet. As far as your company’s concerned, “yes” answers to the above questions are great, but they just mean you’re performing as expected for your level. Here are some of the less obvious questions that they’ll also be thinking about….

1. Is there a business justification to add on a more senior lawyer? If you want to move up a level, generally the company needs a business justification for it instead of just, “Goshdarnit, she works super hard and she really, really wants a promotion.” For example, perhaps more legal support is needed because the company has acquired other businesses, or it’s developing a lot of new products and services. Or there’s an open position above you because someone else has gotten promoted or left the company. Or maybe there are new regulations, or other major changes in your company’s industry that need a senior legal person’s attention.

2. Are you ready to take on higher level responsibilities? Unfortunately, this is a bit of a chicken and egg question: they want to know that you can handle more senior responsibilities, but how are you supposed to show them that you can if you only have more junior responsibilities? Never fear. There are a few ways to work on this. First, you can become so good at your “junior” work, that those above you gain confidence to entrust you with more difficult work. Second, you can get involved in work that more senior people do in order to eventually learn how to do it yourself. Third, you know how everyone says to volunteer for bigger, stretch projects? So yeah, that. And don’t forget — higher level responsibilities involve not only technical work, but also other work, such as managing people.

3. Are your qualifications similar to those at the next level, and “better” than others at your level? Companies care a lot about morale and (the appearance of) fairness. If an employee gets promoted who doesn’t seem to “deserve” it, it can result in a lot of grumbling, people threatening to leave, or a bunch of miserable elves at the holiday party.

4. Is the company willing to pay for a more senior attorney? Money is a barrier to many things in life…

5. Do you have someone vouching for your promotion? Do you have a sponsor who will champion your cause and beat down all of the other sponsors into submission when the pool of candidates is being considered?

6. Do important people know who you are and think well of you? If you need this one explained to you, then you’re not ready for a promotion.

If the answer to any of the questions above is “no,” then your chances of getting a promotion are probably low. There are some items above that you can control, and others that you have a lot less control over. Work on ones that you can, so that when (if?) the opportunity arises, you can end up eyeing that larger office from the inside out.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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