PY1J92 Branch of Gap clothing shops in Oxford Street, London.
Gap: experimented with legal team job swaps © Alamy

Once, making partner at a big-name firm in New York or London was the dream of top law school graduates. That was where the glory — and the money — was. Yet this is changing, say general counsel at companies ranging from global clothing retailers and Silicon Valley tech companies to real estate developers and military contractors.

Today, in-house legal departments are considered more diverse and dynamic than many traditional law firms. Lawyers work more closely with their clients, take ownership of strategic issues and are responsible for key decisions that can make or break the business. More companies are finding that young lawyers are as likely to aspire to a role as a general counsel as a law firm managing partner.

General counsel say the change in fortunes for in-house legal teams has come from the rapid increase in the pace of business and the new requirement for in-house lawyers to help influence corporate strategy. Young lawyers are looking, they say, for a purpose.

“In the 1980s and 1990s the law firm was the way to go. But things have evolved,” says Kelly Mahon Tullier, general counsel at payments company Visa. “If you’re in-house, taking ownership of the business becomes addictive.”

Marie Oh Huber, eBay’s general counsel, agrees that lawyers want to be in-house more than they used to.

“Being an in-house lawyer has become harder and more fun,” she says. “We are in the hot seat more . . . We don’t have the luxury of having colleagues down the hall from [us] with whom to confer at any given moment.”

Ms Tullier says she spends significant time thinking about the career paths of the 300 legal and compliance staff who work for her. Her focus is on providing her staff with challenges to keep them interested and help them develop.

“The worst thing you can do is have great people working in a job where they get complacent,” she says.

Ms Tullier encourages her staff to try different areas of the law within the business.

“I want them to feel like they’re always growing and that they never feel underutilised,” she says.

“Development is very personal,” says Ms Huber. “Make it a priority to really get to know the individual goals, strengths and areas of development and, assuming the desire is there, help that person stretch and grow.”

Greater diversity is an im­portant goal for retailer Gap’s global general counsel, Julie Gruber, who leads a team of 100 lawyers and support staff in San Francisco, Shanghai, London, Tokyo and Mexico City.

“Business has become more complex and global, so legal teams need to be nimbler,” says Ms Gruber. “The legal role has to change to keep up with the business as it becomes more and more complex.”

In a global business environment that covers many legal practice areas, Ms Gruber says, retaining a talented team of innovators is critical.

“If you know the business, you feel more useful,” she adds. “If you feel useful, challenged and appreciated, you’re more likely to stay.”

A few years ago, Ms Gruber piloted what she refers to as a “cross-training” programme in an effort to challenge her staff and share experience across different teams. She took two lawyers from Gap’s real estate and intellectual property teams and had them do half of the other’s job.

“The programme provided not only legal learnings but gave individuals greater exposure to different parts of the business,” she says.

Lawyers who swapped jobs felt that their expertise within the company as well as new areas of law expanded. Ms Gruber is looking to repeat this programme in the future. “Greater exposure is in itself engaging.”

Ms Gruber also maintains a “job board” where she posts long-term projects that do not necessarily sit within one team or practice area. Lawyers can volunteer to run a project. Giving her lawyers variety and ownership of projects they are interested in is another way to retain top talent, she says.

Kellye Walker, general counsel at Huntington Ingalls Industries, America’s largest military shipbuilder, says: “Make sure everyone has clarit­y and transparency about what the job involves and make sure you don’t micromanage.”

“If you empower in-house lawyers and genuinely want their opinion, they will do well — for themselves and for the business,” she says.

Ms Walker stresses that rigour at the hiring stage is an essential component of retention. “Excellence in a prospect’s area of law is the baseline,” she says. “They have to be good stewards with the right skill level to provide the business with maximum value. Hiring people who fit the company and who will buy into its goals is key to keeping talent.”

At the Crown Estate in the UK, the six qualified lawyers who work with general counsel Rob Booth are dubbed “mini GCs”, not only because of the legal department’s culture of empowerment and autonomy, but also because of the sheer size and importance of their workload.

“If you’re managing a £9bn property portfolio anywhere else, you would be a general counsel,” says Mr Booth.

Over past decades, the 953-year-old real estate portfolio business has undergone significant reinvention, and Mr Booth says the same is true of its legal department.

“Defining your purpose provides the consistency which empowers in-house lawyers to make decisions and be engaged with the business,” says Mr Booth.

“Purpose is a gift for law firms: they’re there to protect the rule of law. Finding your purpose as an in-house legal team is critical not only to be a responsible business, but also to retaining top talent.”

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