‘Ditch the external counsel mindset’: how in-house lawyers can take their careers to the next step

In-house lawyers can sometimes find themselves stuck in a rut professionally, playing the narrow role of technical expert within their organisations. Others struggle to make a complete transition from their previous roles in private practice to being an equal part of a broader team that shares responsibility for their organisation’s overall objectives. Yet there is no reason why they should not have a strategic input. Indeed, in-house counsel can offer a unique perspective, understanding how the legal landscape and business environment interact to help the organisation manage risk and set its strategic path. Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jeffrey Bewkes at Time Warner Inc are just two examples of in-house counsel whose strategic input propelled them to the role of CEO.

But moving from ‘counsel’ to ‘leader’ requires a shift in mindset and better business knowledge. Understanding fields like strategy and finance enables in-house lawyers to engage in strategic discussions and collaborate effectively with colleagues across different departments, as often it’s the limited business knowledge that leaves in-house lawyers responding to legal queries rather than participating in strategic discussions. For instance, without a grasp of financial concepts, in-house lawyers may struggle to assess the financial implications of legal decisions fully and accurately, leading to less-than-ideal results, such as overlooking cost-saving opportunities or underestimating financial risks.

With the ability to have better business discussions, in-house lawyers are less likely to find themselves side-lined from crucial decision-making, enhancing their impact within the business. This not only boosts their professional growth but also opens up new opportunities for career advancement within the organisation.

Start by getting the right tools

There are two ways to build your business knowledge and leadership skills and they are most powerful when they are combined. First is the learning we should all do every day: engaging with and learning from colleagues, the environment we are in, and from news and discussion in our industries.

There are also programmes tailored to help in-house lawyers enhance their understanding and skills in certain fields of business where they may lack expertise and experience. Participating in such programmes also sends a clear message to colleagues and other stakeholders: your expertise is a valuable business asset that should be tapped into.

At King’s Business School our Mini-MBA designed specifically for in-house lawyers is designed around the five essential pillars of business and career success.

1. Finance

Enhancing your understanding of finance empowers in-house lawyers to grasp budgets, financial reports, and risks. By better grasping the financial language, metrics and concepts that your organisation undoubtedly uses, you can provide valuable input on budget allocations, investment decisions, and risk management strategies, fostering greater collaboration between legal and financial functions. On a more personal level, this will provide the tools to engage more meaningfully with CFOs and finance teams, who are important stakeholders.

2. Strategy

Effective business strategy is multidimensional: it might need to consider everything from geopolitics to the regulatory environment or changing consumer habits. When you are trained to apply the fundamentals of strategy, your legal counsel becomes an integral part of achieving company success, allowing you to anticipate business needs, identify risks, and propose innovative solutions for growth. And once you can articulate how your plans and approaches align to the business’s strategy, you will be better equipped to engage people around the business who do not share your legal background.

3. Leadership

In-house lawyers at executive levels must embody leadership qualities just like any other manager. At a senior level over half of what legal professionals are focussed on will be much more fundamental aspects of the business, such as governance, instead of discrete questions of compliance and law. Understanding how best to manage your own team, ensuring productivity, as well as leadership strategies for the business, will put you in a much stronger position.

4. Decision-making

Decision-making helps you manage complex dilemmas, hone your critical thinking skills and make informed, strategic choices. Strengthening decision-making abilities enables in-house lawyers to analyse their work, the business, and the challenges they are facing through a different lens than just legal and contractual issues. In this module, at King’s Business School we teach having to deal with ‘wicked problems’ strategic challenges that have no clear end-goal, but require mobilising support within an organisation. This could vary from making a business more green, to dealing with supply chain risk.

5. Personal branding

Much less emphasised than in other roles, personal branding is nonetheless important for in-house lawyers to showcase their unique strengths and the value they are providing to their organisation. Building your personal brand allows you to enhance the visibility of your work and better position yourself as a strategic partner within your organisation’s ecosystem. Branding is also incredibly important when considering your career trajectory and the roles beyond your current organisation.

In focussing on these five key areas, we hope the Mini-MBA at King’s Business School will bring in-house lawyers out of the external counsel mindset and into the role of business partner, challenging the assumptions that they are limited to only being technical experts.

The programme ‘was a win-win from start to finish,’ highlights Ann Brookes, general counsel and corporate secretary at the Farrel Corporation. ‘It provided me the tremendous opportunity to round out my business knowledge, increase my financial literacy so that I could better see a company’s financials from a CFO’s perspective, and gain additional approaches for management interactions all while collaborating with a new network of international colleagues who brought perspectives from their roles in an array of industries.’

The Mini-MBA is undertaken over the course of three intensive days, with a programme that was designed with help from the Association for Corporate Counsel. The next programme dates are 12-14 June 2024, with an application deadline of 29 May 2024. For more information, visit the course page here: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/business/executive-education/open-course/mini-mba-in-house-lawyers or email our Programme Expert Michele Gray for a consultation at michele.gray@kcl.ac.uk.