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Create Your Opportunities: Career Progression in Seemingly Flat Legal Departments

Introduction:

In the corporate world, the term “flat department” often carries connotations of limited growth and stagnation. However, it’s essential to recognize that even in seemingly flat departments, there are still valuable career opportunities waiting to be discovered. Throughout my career, no matter the size of the legal department, in-house attorneys complain that (1) the department is too flat and (2) there aren’t any opportunities for career progression. In this article, we will debunk the misconception that flat(ish) departments lack career progression and highlight alternative avenues for professional growth.

How to grow in a flat legal department:

  1. Redefining Progression in Flat Departments:

a) Horizontal Growth: While traditional hierarchies emphasize vertical progression, flat departments offer unique opportunities for horizontal growth. Instead of climbing the ladder, employees can expand their knowledge and expertise by taking on cross-functional projects, collaborating with different teams, and diversifying their skill sets.

b) Project Ownership: In flat departments, employees often have the chance to take ownership of projects from start to finish. This level of autonomy allows individuals to gain valuable experience in project management, decision-making, and leadership skills, even in the absence of formal promotions. While rarely taught in law school, there are few skills that are more important for in-house attorneys than project management and leadership. The ability to drive projects and to lead people (especially people that you don’t manage) is critical.

  1. Skill Enhancement and Specialization:

a) Skill Diversity: Flat departments often require employees to wear multiple hats and handle various responsibilities. This presents an opportunity for individuals to develop a wide range of skills, becoming versatile professionals capable of tackling diverse challenges. Embracing skill diversity can lead to personal and professional growth.

b) Specialization within Roles: While the department structure may appear flat, there are often niche areas within specific roles that allow employees to specialize and become subject matter experts. By honing their expertise in a particular domain, individuals can establish themselves as valuable assets within the organization. Even if it may not show up in their title and job description, in-house attorneys should work with their supervisors to take on areas of subject matter expertise: become THE go-to person for an area or two.

  1. Seek Out Growth Opportunities:

a) Cross-Department Collaboration: Look beyond the boundaries of your immediate department and seek opportunities for collaboration with other teams. Engaging in cross-functional projects allows for exposure to different perspectives, skill sets, and opens doors for future career advancement.

b) Professional Development Initiatives: Take advantage of professional development programs, workshops, and training sessions offered within the organization. Enhancing your skills and knowledge can create new avenues for growth, even if formal promotions may not be readily available.

  1. Building a Personal Brand:

a) Visibility and Recognition: In flat departments, it is crucial to proactively showcase your contributions and achievements. Cultivate strong relationships with colleagues and superiors, seek feedback, and seize opportunities to demonstrate your skills and leadership qualities.

b) Mentorship and Networking: Seek mentors within and outside your department who can guide you and provide valuable insights. Networking with professionals from different departments or industries can broaden your horizons and expose you to potential career opportunities.

In sum, although flat departments may appear to lack traditional vertical progression, there are numerous avenues for career development and growth. Embrace the unique opportunities available, such as horizontal growth, skill diversification, specialization, cross-department collaboration, and personal branding.

Things aren’t really as dire as they seem:

In my experience, no one progresses as quickly as they would like and no one is satisfied with the number of available opportunities in their legal department. As a leader, I need to understand that and empathize with my team. That being said, over the course of years, I have realized that (1) we all have to be patient and (2) opportunities always come along.

1. No one’s career progresses as quickly as they would like: As hard as it is to hear, you have to be patient. No one progresses from counsel to senior counsel overnight. I remember being frustrated that my career was moving too slowly. But, with only 5 or 6 stages in a 35-40 year career (e.g., counsel, senior counsel, associate general counsel, deputy general counsel, general counsel, chief legal officer), you need to be a bit patient. That being said, although you need to be patient, you cannot sit on your hands and wait. You need to take control and ensure that when an opportunity shows up, you are undeniably the best person for that opportunity. You should understand the requirements of the next step in your career and you should ensure that you are addressing any gaps. You should spend everyday ensuring that you are the employee who is growing and solving problems within your department. As Jim Rohn said, “[w]e must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” Ensure that you have the discipline to guarantee that you are ready for that opportunity when it comes along.

2. Opportunities always come along: especially for excellent employees: Although many legal departments look flat on paper (I remember feeling this even when I worked in a hundred+ attorney global legal department), opportunities always come along. Corporations and corporate legal departments are very fluid. First, employees come and go. Retirements, terminations, opportunities elsewhere, striking the jackpot, whatever — employees will leave even the best legal departments. When they leave, opportunities are presented. Second, departments change. Legal Departments seem to constantly re-org and re-structure. When this happens, again, opportunities are presented – be ready. Additionally, even if the legal department isn’t restructuring, sometimes changes in the business create the need for additional or altered legal assignments. Keep the mindset that Change=Opportunity and you will find that opportunities will come along. If there is anything that can be guaranteed in a corporation, it is that change will occur.

Conclusion:

By taking proactive steps and adopting a growth mindset, you can uncover hidden gems within a seemingly flat department and forge a rewarding and fulfilling career path. With a little patience and perseverance, you will find that change is a constant and with change comes opportunities.

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