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Succession planning can be exact and precise, or it can be open and loosely interpreted. The format will depend in part on your organization’s culture and resources. Below are suggestions on how to supplement what you may be doing or assist in building a more formal process.

The first step is to analyze the competencies and traits needed for running your legal department today and, typically, five to 10 years out. When you compare those findings, the gap between them becomes the basis for creating a succession plan. Or, you may need to start by asking what you need to run your legal organization effectively today and whether there are gaps between that and your current legal team. We find that organizations are in these situations pending a merger or acquisition, or during rapid organic growth.

Regardless of which economic force is behind the trend, a gap exists. That gap may be addressed by using these methodologies:

  • Cross-training programs;
  • Stretch assignments ;
  • Special projects; and
  • Developmental opportunities (internal or external).


If you are looking for a highly productive way to create a solid foundation for a succession plan in your legal department, cross-training is an excellent route.

It broadens skills by teaching professionals how to handle someone else’s responsibilities, temporarily or permanently. Contrary to the experience during traditional law firm training, in-house lawyers can be trained in all or part of a colleague’s tasks or in other competencies, possibly outside the legal department.

Think about when you were first hired by a law firm and had no practice area expertise; you learned at least one practice area in depth and possibly others, too. In-house legal departments do not follow the model where a partner may have chosen you based on his or her need, rather than based on your interest or practice area. We know many lawyers who listed practice area interests when hired by a law firm, and never were given the opportunity to acquire competencies in those areas. Generally speaking, in-house legal departments will hire for a particular competency, but there is a far greater chance to develop additional competencies in-house than in a law firm practice.

Formal and informal cross-training programs may be created so legal professionals can develop the critical competencies you have identified as lacking, now or down the road. Legal department cross-training may have an additional upside; it may also be a means toward creating pathways to the general counsel role.

What are the core competencies necessary to be a successful general counsel in your organization? Can cross-training programs be formulated to develop such competencies?  Are you open to grooming a legal professional who may need to leave your organization for an advancement opportunity if you occupy the general counsel role or another professional has been identified as the successor?

Cross-training also protects your ability to manage your department’s functions should someone leave. Having more than one individual trained in a particular discipline, or with knowledge of the legal operation processes, will minimize disruption and enhance your team’s performance.

In addition, cross-training may reduce turnover and provide opportunities for individuals to grow their careers in place, especially as there are only so many general counsel opportunities in a given market. We have spoken with many general counsel who were able to enhance their value within an organization by adding skills and competencies through successful cross-training programs within the legal department and through business skill development outside of it.

Cross-training can be used to retain legal professionals, develop new substantive expertise, provide a pathway to the GC role, or serve as a foundation for career paths beyond the legal department.

Cross-training works well in large, well-established legal departments, generally with generous training budgets. That may not be your current situation, and the next section outlines other steps you can take that may not require formal approval or programs.

Stretch Assignments and Special Projects 

Stretch assignments and special project opportunities allow legal professionals to develop competencies that make them more valuable to the organization. These opportunities strategically position professionals for growth, based on current competencies that may be lacking or on future company needs. Possible stretch assignments or special projects may include presenting at a board meeting or preparing documents outside the scope of the professionals’ responsibilities, such as work on the annual report or participation in an employment investigation.

It is not uncommon to hear “board presentation skills” or “executive presence” as desirable areas of expertise within companies and nonprofit organizations. In our work, we often engage with lawyers who aspire to the general counsel role and would like to be selected for one of the following:

  • Presenting to internal committees of the board of directors;
  • Leading internal committees;
  • Taking on a rotational assignment, such as in a division that needs their particular expertise; or
  • Presenting on a defined segment at a board meeting, or joining non-profit boards with the expectation they would present to the board or seek out skill sets, such as leadership training, fund-raising or business development competencies, required for

Those opportunities may not require a promotion or additional compensation. Sometimes, organizations factor in stretch or special project assignments for professional development as part of the bonus program or give a bonus when the assignment is completed.

Developmental Programs

Developmental programs may be a more broad, varied or general learning opportunity that could propel a lawyer’s career, add to his or her general marketability, or be part of a formal succession plan. Examples of developmental programs include undergoing leadership training, working with finance professionals to better understand an organization’s financial statements, participating on a task force or ad hoc group to learn a skill or be exposed to a different group of professionals, or creating training manual.

Whether you are using stretch assignments, special projects or other developmental programs, the keys to your success will be whether you know what skills, experience or competencies your department requires and whether you can provide the appropriate developmental opportunities.

A word of caution is in order. Taking on a stretch assignment or a developmental opportunity outside of the legal department (e.g., an operational or business development role) does not guarantee a return to the legal department. We know of situations where lawyers accepted developmental opportunities outside of the legal department and were unable to return because positions were not available in legal. In career navigation situations where a legal professional is taking a calculated risk beyond the legal profession, it is wise to be sure everyone is clear about expectations. What will be the risks? Will his or her position be filled? What happens if the area, project or team does not succeed, and what are the consequences? The upside can be tremendously rewarding, but there are associated risks.

Questions to Consider

  • If stretch assignments, special projects or rotations are available in other departments in your organization, how are they structured and what resources are offered? Meet with those department heads; they have a lot to offer.
  • Are resources available through your human resources department, or outside the organization, to help you create a succession plan? Similarly, have professionals in your network had success with stretch assignments or developmental programs? Find out what worked and what roadblocks those professionals encountered.
  • Could a volunteer assignment, perhaps an internal or external board or committee position, provide a professional development opportunity, such as in strategic thinking, executive-level presenting/speaking, business development or mastering new subject matter?
  • Are consulting resources available to help develop a stretch assignment program, rotational assignment or similar structure?
  • If you are bringing more work in-house, could this create a developmental opportunity?
  • Might it make sense to invest some time and resources in developing a succession plan?

In Summary

The goal is to identify career development paths based on your company’s growth strategy and current and future needs, develop a strategy or strategies for lawyers to acquire skills and competencies, and retain critical professionals. Hands-on experience is a powerful teacher, and the expertise acquired builds confidence.

The payoffs of stretch, special project and developmental opportunities are tangible. We have met general counsel who were able to step up, volunteer or convince senior management they were worthy of learning new competencies—legal and otherwise.

It is a fluid process that can become complex quickly, but if you provide structure and proceed on a step-by-step basis, you will be able to shape a roadmap for success.


Garber is a principal and vice president of Princeton Legal Search Group, where she leads dynamic general counsel or equivalent searches.