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When you went in-house, you expected a learning curve. You knew you had to produce excellent legal work while simultaneously increasing your business acumen, learning the corporate culture, and gaining respect from legal colleagues and business clients. You’ve accomplished all that and more. Once primarily a scrivener at client meetings, your business sense and confidence have grown. You contribute significantly to the strategy and the development of business deals. Down the hall in Legal, you’re considered a lawyer’s lawyer. You skillfully navigate the corporate environment, a complex system far more bewildering than your law firm’s two-tier structure. Observing the importance of mentors, you aligned yourself with a savvy insider and tirelessly absorbed facts and patterned behaviors until you, too, could pass as a corporate veteran. You studied where your clients fit in the company hierarchy and where the company stood within its industry. Recognizing the value of networking, you signed up for committees, supported corporate initiatives, and joined industry organizations. You even (surreptitiously, of course) practiced business presentation skills and consulted a “dress for corporate success” guru. Initially, the payoff was clear: Your promotion from entry-level attorney came less than three years after going in-house. Pausing only briefly to enjoy your larger office, increased perks, and senior counsel status, you’re eyeing the loftier � but undoubtedly attainable � deputy GC title. You’ve continued doing the things that led to your rapid advancement. Surprisingly, though, you now hear discouraging comments about promotion opportunities. The phrases “pyramid structure” and “slow or no growth” are bandied about in staff meetings and reviews. Growth (at least the preferred kind, with your company regularly acquiring smaller operations) has stopped. Organic growth, measured in millimeters instead of miles, is now the official strategy. Your company, once a dominant industry player, now finds itself competing on all fronts. Trouble signs are also evident in the legal department. One or two attorneys repeatedly get the nod for key task forces, slots in executive development program, and invitations to industry events. Important opportunities (representing a new product line or department) are snapped up before you even know they exist. You find yourself increasingly isolated, working hard and delivering results, but receiving no real recognition. Talent reviews � those critical pathways in succession planning � describe you as solid and competent but do not put you in the rising star category. The possibility that you may have topped out � after only one real promotion � slowly creeps into your mind. Long before you’re ready, you are thinking about job satisfaction, career choices, and even your future in the company. What are your options? Leverage your business skills and join your clients. Use your talents as a springboard to a higher position in another legal department (or possibly a law firm). Stay in your current job but carve out a satisfactory (although flat) career path. Going to the business side might not be so hard. Although you did not take many business classes, the work you’ve done since going in-house has taught you a lot about the business world. You think you’re smart enough to master the material. But do you have the personality a corporate exec needs? Unlike going in-house, this move would take you out of your comfort zone. With ten-plus years as an attorney behind you, the idea of abandoning that title, and the security it brings, is intimidating. Some questions to consider: How strong are your management skills, and how much do you enjoy managing? As a director, VP, or similar business leader, your ability to recruit, motivate, and retain the best (and avoid or dismiss the worst) is critical. Do you think risk is a four-letter word? Unlike the law, which moves deliberately and offers ways to draft around, ensure against, and plan for uncertainties, business decisions often must be made quickly. Executives sometimes have to make major decisions with inadequate information and little or no safety net. And job security isn’t assured. Many skilled execs fall prey to volatile economies, unexpected competitive changes, and oddball personnel issues. Are you comfortable rolling the dice? Is the pyramid structure alive and well on the business side at your company? Although it may offer a wider variety of levels, advancement opportunities may be just as limited on the business side as they are in the law department. Is the business position you are considering really a better deal (factoring in both hard and soft compensation and job security) than your current post? Continuing as a lawyer, somewhere else, might be a better fit. When you contemplate jumping to another law department or back to a law firm, think about the following: Is the timing right? Often the race for that next promotion takes priority over professional development. Is your tool kit fully equipped and readily transferable? Are your negotiating and drafting skills honed? Think about whether you’re more likely to find opportunities elsewhere if you move now or a few years from now. What’s your dream job? Managing a law department and shaping corporate policy as general counsel? Or is being the resident subject-matter expert more your cup of tea? Do you really think you could go back to a law firm, with its marketing pressures, unpredictable schedule, and time sheets? Happiness in a job often hinges on workplace culture. Have you identified the culture that best suits your values and goals? Do you have a viable plan to find that culture? Intangible as it is, you should not underestimate the importance of culture. Before writing off your current job, work through the following: Do a reality check. Using every resource possible, assess the realities of your position. Ask your boss: Will I be promoted? When? Or, why not? Do your due diligence. Every company, department, and function has unique flaws. Identifying them and honestly assessing how they would affect you is critical. Do a gut check. If the thought of walking away from your current job doesn’t cause at least a slight pang, it’s time to go. Actually, it’s past time. On the flip side, if that prospective position doesn’t fill you with excitement and energy, it’s not the right one. Staying put � and redefining a successful career path � is paradoxically both the easiest and the hardest choice. It’s easy in that you don’t risk losing your professional identity, face multiple unknowns, or lose the positive aspects of your job. By staying, you’ll continue to reap the benefits of hard-won respect and esteem. The difficult part is making a success of the horizontal path open to you. Step one is assessing your talents and values. Cut through what you think others expect of you and identify your own aspirations. You’ve got to do the pre-work of setting aside your bruised ego, accepting the unfairness of limited opportunities, and letting go of your original ambitions before you can redefine success. Which parts of your job bring you the greatest joy? And before you say “managing people,” consider whether you really enjoy that responsibility or just say so because it’s a prerequisite for moving up. Being a legal expert � crafting the perfect contract, writing articles, and serving as your company’s go-to authority � . What are your real talents and how can you leverage them? If coaching is a natural and gratifying experience for you, consider serving as a mentor in a company or industry program. Gifted in strategic planning? Apply your talents in a professional or industry organization. Like to teach? Consider local colleges or paralegal programs. If you stay, chances are that an attorney or two will move up and over you. Eventually, you’ll hit the top of the salary band, and economic rewards will dwindle. At times the repetitiveness of your job may leave you bored or frustrated. At the worst moments, long-buried ambitions may resurface. For some, crafting a horizontal but fulfilling career path simply isn’t possible. For them, leaving is definitely the best way to go. But for those who can redirect their ambitions to new goals, a rich and rewarding career awaits right where they are. Teresa Kennedy is assistant general counsel for Cox Communications, Inc. She has written and spoken widely on in-house career path and work-life balance issues.

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