1. The legal department as an incubator

Many lawyers in legal departments follow a classic career path, at least initially: they rise inside the company, i.e. from in-house counsel to team leader, assistant general counsel, regional general counsel up to group general counsel. And since lawyers are often considered to be smart generalists with a wide-ranging education and training, this often entices other corporate functions and departments to look for new talents in the legal department. This has a particular appeal for lawyers who are curious and open to new challenges.

I remember well how applicants regularly asked me in times, when I hired lawyers in the legal department, what development options in the legal department looked like. I was then able to demonstrate with the help of genuine examples how colleagues from the legal department did not only follow the classic legal career path but continued to develop successfully in various other directions inside the company – for instance as board secretary, compliance officer, risk manager, operations manager or even CEO of a subsidiary company. Thus, a legal department may truly also be regarded as a kind of incubator for talents within a company.

2. What does a career in a law firm look like today?

Development options outside a legal department are also exciting. If you take a closer look at classic law firms, a traditional career looks as follows: summer internship, associate, senior associate, junior partner or principal counsel, senior partner and managing partner. Even though certain business lawyers still equip themselves with the classic curriculum (Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, admission to the Bar, Doctor’s degree, LL.M. or MBA, specialist lawyer), nothing is set in stone any longer today. Often, many associates deliberately chose to join a (reputable) law firm only for two years in order to gain some initial experience and for CV reasons. In law firms with an up-or-out model, most associates leave the firm again anyway.

But in law firms, too, the situation has changed. Today, untypical changes are no longer viewed with suspicion. Associates do not only change firms regularly, but also move to legal departments to become team leaders or even directly general counsel there. Thanks to genuine freedom of choice, they return to a law firm if need be or join public administration.

3. Change management remains crucial!

There are no typical one-way streets left. Practically everything is possible, and there are hardly any barriers any longer. This is necessary for practical reasons alone, since owing to the shortage of talent and skilled lawyers that has already been going on for quite some time, employers cannot afford to display arrogance or erect artificial barriers. Employers have to offer options in order to fulfil the desire for an individual career, and be open to New Work, working and workplace flexibility, WFH, agility, etc.

Even so, employees in particular must remember that no coin is thin enough to have only one side. Employees have to make their own choice from the wealth of options on offer and are therefore responsible for their future themselves. And subsequently, they have to have their own change management under control, for with every change, and particularly with “ruptures” in professional development, the effort required for success is great, and this change has to be managed consciously by employees themselves.

4. Result: much more freedom?

Yes! At  first sight, a great deal has changed, and the removal of artificial barriers in the legal market has resulted in much more freedom. More freedom, however, also entails more responsibility, i.e. in every minor or major change of job and/or employer, employees are responsible for their own happiness themselves.

For further impulses, cf. Mascello Bruno, Legal Counsel im Unternehmen: Entwicklungsmöglichkeiten und Karriere, in: Falta Roman P./Dueblin Christian (eds.), Praxishandbuch Legal Operations Management, Heidelberg 2017, p. 589-604).

About us

The business unit “Law & Management” of the Executive School of the University of St.Gallen (HSG) offers since 2007 eight subject areas in open programmes at all levels (week-long seminars, CAS, DAS, Master’s Level) and tailor-made in-house courses. To date, more than 1,600 participants have attended the constantly updated and extended open executive education formats. The comprehensive executive education format that was introduced in 2021 signals a clear commitment to lifelong learning in that all the courses are of a consistently modular structure and can be compiled flexibly in terms of time and according to individual requirements. Above and beyond this, the following executive education objectives are pursued: becoming familiar with a wide variety of career perspectives and options, establishing and extending networks, developing new methods and tools, and generally extending participants’ own horizons.

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About the author

Bruno Mascello

Prof. Dr. Bruno Mascello Director, Academic Director Law & Management

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