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In-house legal's development dilemma

Modern in-house counsel are not often people predisposed to being stunned by winding paths, unstoppable forces or immovable objects. They usually leap at problems and grasp them with both hands. But there is one problem which seemingly stunts even the best counsel, and that is in-house legal’s development dilemma.

This predicament is the result of the available wealth of great in-house counsel - but with only a couple of jobs at the top of most organizations. It makes counsel feel a bit like Charlie looking for a great glass elevator to help them crash through the ceiling.

Asim Khan, Inview Champion and International Commercial Counsel at Personio, believes these ceilings are part of the modern working life cycle and can only be removed by in-house counsel and their organizations.

“From a leadership perspective, people don’t always have a clear idea of what development and progression should look like, and the individuals concerned don’t necessarily know either," he says. "You can have some ideas in your head, but you need guidance. You get to a stage where you are comfortable in your role and wonder where do I go from here?" This is what happened in my previous role, confirming in your mind that there is a sort of a life cycle. You go through the onboarding stage then get familiar with the role and feel very engaged. Eventually, you get into this comfort zone where you’re not learning anything new, where everything is becoming a bit run of the mill.”

Once you’re through the initial learning and engagement, it is up to both the individual and the company to identify and plan for advancement opportunities. If that doesn't happen, feelings of stagnation can set in and in-house counsel find themselves looking elsewhere to advance their careers. Doing so means resigning themselves to another fresh start on the life cycle. It also contributes to a potentially unwanted churn statistic for the organization.

While it is up to the individual to discern their next move, organizations would be wise to provide their staff with opportunities. “I’ve always seen it rather like a magic trick, if you imagine the organization is the magician," says Khan. "They’re asking you to pick a card and they make the selections quite narrow, which means they’re giving you only a, b and c, and it is up to you to decide.

“That is what needs to happen with progression and development. Those at the top level of a company needs to ask themselves what options are realistic: not everyone can be a GC or Head of Legal so what options do we want to give each person?”

This kind of thinking has another less obvious advantage - it helps to further generate buy-in and trust within an organization, which can be a particularly strong boon in uncertain times.

“There’s this whole notion around companies being families, which I don’t think they are. I don’t think that viewpoint is correct. What you want is a company that is going to treat you with respect. That can translate to whether they’ve got long-term views of their employees, if they’re thinking about developing their careers. If so, it suggests they see their employees as an asset instead of something expendable, so when difficult times come they're likely to think extra hard about any decisions they make."

In a sense the development dilemma is a good problem to have as it is indicative of the wealth of talent entering the in-house legal profession. But it is also a double-edged sword as this talent has to be meaningfully developed and managed otherwise it might head off for anticipated greener pastures.

As ever, the best way through this conundrum is to have honest and empathetic communication, and that will require all the mental acuity modern in-house counsel have become known for. It is never the wrong decision to invest in your team.

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