Success in-house – what people don’t tell you about how to get there

Posted by Sarah Dickson, deputy general counsel at Marks & Spencer and non-executive director at Legal Futures Associate The College of Legal Practice

Dickson: You are no longer just giving advice – you are also landing the solution

Suits. Boston Legal. Law and Order. TV dramas have made many people think that the legal profession consists of heroes (or villains) in high-flying legal firms or public prosecution. However, Law Society figures show that around 23% of all practicing solicitors describe themselves as working in-house.

Working in-house is a fascinating path to take because it immerses you in a specific industry and develops your understanding of a business on a whole different level.

When I first transitioned from working in a law firm to in-house, it was a steep learning curve as it’s a very different way of working – but one that has been a really exciting step in my career.

As a non-executive director for The College of Legal Practice, I think it is important to develop training for lawyers who are thinking about making the transition to in-house, or who have already made the jump and would benefit from a ‘crash course’ in how to thrive (and not just survive) in their new working environment.

Continuing your learning journey throughout your career and not just when you qualify is essential, so here are a few things to consider when thinking about your own professional development.

Legal skills: It’s no one-size-fits-all for the industry

Before applying for your next role, there is value in spending time to think not just about what you can offer a company but the skills you want to develop during your career.

An interview with your potential employer is a crucial opportunity to find out if there might be scope to get the kind of experience you’re looking for and to develop yourself further. So, you may be thinking, what’s the difference between a law firm and in-house when it comes to skill set?

When you work in a law firm, you are usually finding solutions to specific client problems and there isn’t much room for developing ‘unconventional’ lawyer skills such as innovation and creativity.

When you work in-house you have free reign – you know the business intimately, you know the law, you know when the business is ‘over egging the pudding’ and you have to have the confidence to speak up. I always challenge myself to identify and land new opportunities that have not been asked for. I figure that, if I don’t do it, who will?

As a line manager at M&S, I am always trying to find ways to nurture innovation and creativity in my team and to get them thinking about different ways of doing things. In a transformation, there is no time to stand on ceremony. How can we land change in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible?

With more and more companies introducing remote working policies, I think it’s even harder for legal professionals to transition from working in a firm to in-house and that’s a real shame. In-house recruiters have a tendency to hire people who are already working in-house rather than taking a chance on someone from a private practice background and training them up.

Whilst it’s not as easy to get immersed in the business and company culture when working remotely, I think some capable legal professionals are missing out on being considered for roles simply because companies don’t want to invest in training. That means that companies end up hiring very similar profiles rather than people who are hungry to learn and have another perspective on the legal profession.

In-depth from the outset

In a law firm, it is difficult to really understand the businesses of the clients you’re working for in any great depth. When you work in-house, you have to get your head around the business right from the start.

It’s likely that you’ll be working with cross-functional teams in different departments so a great place to start is by understanding everyone’s roles.

Transitioning to an in-house role, there is often a lot of assumption that you’ll get stuck in right away (which you will) but I really believe legal departments need to spend time with and help their new lawyers develop a new way of thinking – learning that sometimes (or often) you won’t find the answer in a text book and instead you have to trust your judgement and give it your best shot.

You are no longer just giving advice – you are also landing the solution.

This is your legal career journey

Your organisation may offer training on things such as latest changes in regulations, best practice and industry trends, but not every organisation will have the same level of offering for wider soft-skills development such as resilience, emotional intelligence and the art of diplomacy.

It’s important to take a step back from your own day-to-day work and see if there are any areas you personally think you’d benefit from some further training on.

Similarly, if your organisation has lots of courses on offer, I really recommend that you integrate time in your diary for personal skills development.

One of the benefits of online learning when it comes to professional training is that you can fit it into your day or in your spare time. The College’s courses are one example of this, offering flexible digital learning that can fit around your work and personal life.

If you’re working in a legal firm and would like to widen your skill set and learn more about what it’s like to work in-house, think about taking your professional development into your own hands and ask an external provider to offer that to your team.

Likewise, if you’re working in-house and want to push your career further, why not ask your employer to fund a course that will help you add value that little bit faster?


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