Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: Creating Dual Career Tracks

Some years ago, information technology and research firms realized that they could thrive only by attracting and retaining employees with two very different skill sets. These firms needed both great scientists and great managers.

Great scientists, however, were being undervalued, while great managers were being given too much dignity. In many corporations, the more people under your supervision, the more authority, respect and, often, pay you command. How could IT firms keep pure scientists — who loved thinking great thoughts and creating great inventions, but loathed managing people — happy? Wouldn’t those folks become frustrated as they saw their peers — less able scientists, but great managers — move ahead in the ranks?

Those firms pioneered the idea of creating dual career paths. One path was the standard route to success: Manage people; control a P&L center; prosper.

But the second path was the innovative one: Lead specified projects; work with key clients; generate new ideas; prosper equally!

After the IT firms blazed that trail, sales organizations soon followed suit. Those outfits needed both great sales people and great administrators. So they created dual career paths, offering routes for advancement (and power, and riches, and corner offices, and all the rest) to both types of people.

Isn’t an analogous dual-career-path model worth considering, both at law firms and in-house law departments?

Law firms need great sales people — rainmakers.

But those firms also need lawyers with great technical skills, the ability to train new lawyers, and so on. And law firms must also attract great IT people, and finance people, and others.

Dual career paths — one in “sales” and one climbing a different ladder, but both offering similar prestige and rewards — seems like an attractive model.

(That’s naturally hard to accomplish in many law firm partnerships today. A rainmaking partner with little institutional loyalty may insist on maximizing his personal pay this year, long-term or collective success be damned. If the firm chooses to invest in great technical lawyers, great educators, and great IT folks for the collective or long-term good, that rainmaker may feel underpaid and promptly bolt to another firm. But surely the idea of dual career paths, which has worked so well for so many corporations, deserves thought.)

For in-house lawyers, the need for dual career paths is in many ways more pressing. In-house lawyers are, by definition, not revenue-generators, so they’re laboring in what may be the less-appreciated fields in their companies. But those lawyers may nonetheless be spectacularly good at the roles they play. If corporations create dual career paths, then the M&A lawyer who solves impossible problems and closes unclosable deals — but loathes managing people — could see an enticing career path before him that matched his professional desires.

So suggest this!

If you can develop the right model, your human resources department will love you — because those folks will look great for being out at the cutting edge. Management should appreciate your contribution, because you’ll have ginned up a way to attract and retain talent essential to the corporation’s future. And, depending on the career path you prefer, you may have invented a future for yourself more attractive than the one you that you envisioned yesterday.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer 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 and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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