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Vanessa Vidal, president of in-house search firm ESQ Recruiting.
On small vs. large legal departments:
Pick the right legal department for you. Small is five or fewer attorneys. If you make the transition there, you may find there’s no room at the top or no room to grow. The GC may not be going anywhere and you may have to move on to move up, unless you want to keep doing the same work year after year and/or you’re willing to wait for that GC to step down. If you’re willing to bide your time and be part of the succession plan in a small legal department, that’s all well, but that means you’re going to be in that position for a long time.
The pros of a small legal department: You’ll see a greater breadth of legal issues; perhaps you’ll keep your repetitive work to a minimum; you’ll be able to allocate more repetitive work to outside counsel, so the practice may be more exciting. But again, you need to have a clear understanding of the work you’ll be expected to handle as well as a succession plan, if any, the legal department might have in place to really give a sense of whether or not the opportunities to advance are real. You may not actually be changing positions or title in a small legal dept, but you may be more likely to obtain raises. If prestige is not at the top of your list and you’re willing to bide your time for the top spot, then this may be the right option.
A large department has 50-plus attorneys. Usually there are more avenues for advancement. It may be a more hierarchical structure–although a lot of large legal departments have reverted to a flatter structure. But in the hierarchical structure of a large legal department, you may have the opportunity to move up to more senior roles with more responsibility. These companies usually have worldwide operations.
The downside is that for these very large companies, if you’re vying for the top legal position it’s less likely that you will rise to the GC level. Most likely you will have to make a lateral transition to another company to obtain the GC position, primarily because the positions of companies with large legal departments tend to be filled by the board or the CEO. They like to handpick someone that’s not necessarily from within the existing legal department, so it’s a lot harder. You don’t necessarily rise through the ranks as you would in a smaller legal department.
Art Chong, general counsel of Broadcom Corp., former CLO of Safeco Corp.
On private practice vs. in-house work:
On one hand, they really are, at some level, very similar. You’re applying the same legal and analytical skills. On the other, being an in-house lawyer in some respects is dramatically different from being an outside lawyer.
[Law firm lawyering] is more noncommittal, more abstract. Essentially you deliver your view of what the law is, and then you serve it up to the clients and say, “You decide.”
If you’re an in-house lawyer you’re pretty much part of the decision-making machinery, and you bring your expertise as a lawyer to that decision-making process. But you’re not as detached as an outside lawyer would be–which adds to the fun
If I had to do it all over again, I’d do exactly what I’ve done. I think most people find the right niche for themselves, and the people who spend years and years in outside firms like it as well. The people who gravitate toward inside positions like that stuff equally. It’s kind of like houses and schools–there’s a right job for everybody.
On making it to the GC position:
When I interviewed at Safeco, the CEO at that time said, “Why do you want the job?” then stopped and corrected himself: “Well, I guess I know why, because in the Fortune 500 there are only 500 of these jobs.”
There’s an exclusivity to it, but at this point the jobs are pretty much few and far between, and depending on the size of the organization, the legal organization in any company is pretty much a pyramid. One of the things that I would say to someone contemplating advancing their career is that they take stock of what their chances are within their current organization as well as opportunities outside.
Jed Hendrick, partner at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge and former general counsel of Dennison Manufacturing and H.P. Hood.
On the in-house pyramid:
There’s usually only one general counsel, and then he or she might have a couple of deputies, but underneath that you have a fairly limited number of people in pyramid. The opposite in a law firm is that things are kind of horizontal. Everybody is theoretically kind of co-owner.
It’s really difficult to get a top slot [in-house] these days in particular, but it’s always very competitive. There are probably a lot of people out there who are excellent general counsel candidates–they probably have all the [right qualities]. But they just don’t have a chance.
Unfortunately I think you have to keep looking around, because you’ll get stuck in the middle of the pyramid and you’ll never advance. So you have to keep looking for that next company where you can make your mark. Maybe there’s a smaller department, and you’ll have more visibility to the board or to the CEO. You can make your mark and have your chance. You just have to keep making sure that at each stop you don’t get bottled into a channel where you’re not getting that kind of visibility.