It's easy for law firms to retain the best attorneys because they have an infinite capacity for talent at the top. The partnership structure allows for as many owners as the firm wants to create. Partners can be equity or non-equity, and a variety of alternative compensation packages allow firms to retain and recruit top talent, even those attorneys who aren't stakeholders. Even the leadership of the law firm is flexible enough to allow many attorneys to take on leadership roles such as chair of the firm, CEO, practice group chair, firm-wide managing partner, office managing partner, senior partner, management committee member and executive committee member. The inventory of leadership positions seems limitless.
Legal departments have no such luxury and have to grow and retain top talent using a completely different set of criteria, one that, for those who joined from a law firm, is difficult to get accustomed to. The GC has to create an environment that rewards the members of the department not by title, but by the real challenges and excitement of the legal and business work. The reality is that the best-trained lawyers that "grow-up" in corporate legal departments will likely leave as soon as they get really good at their jobs.
The challenge to grow and retain talent from within the legal department is no different than in any other unit of the company. Other departments engage in a form of corporate Darwinism where the leaders find talent, give employees responsibility and see who rises to the top.
Those who do will be first in line to move up to the next level of management responsibility.
The mainstream press highlights the largest companies and the most high-profile executive changes. For example, everyone took note when Citigroup's GC succeeded a venerable CEO. In most of those examples, as the CEO prepares to hand the reins over to a successor, the top lieutenants and other heirs apparent jockey for the position. The net effect is that once the decision becomes clear, the other candidates move on to lead other companies.
The same reality occurs in legal departments. In-house legal departments don't have the time or money to train new hires in the practice of law. When attorneys arrive in the legal department, there should be no question about their legal skills. The training that takes place in the corporation is less about the practice of law and more about the business of law. But too often in-house lawyers become pigeonholed into routine work that does nothing to challenge them.
If you aren't doing it already, you should be making sure that your lawyers are working with other business units in formal mentoring programs. Lawyers should be spending time with managers in HR, finance, R&D and any other group with which they regularly come into contact. The only way that you can grow new in-house counsel into future leaders is to throw them into the fire and give them real responsibility.
An ancillary benefit of insinuating your lawyers in other business units is that the managers in those business units will foster stronger ties to the lawyers and be more likely to come to you before a problem becomes a crisis.
Few people stay in any job for the long term--that's an undeniable reality. But while they are there, you want your lawyers in your department to be excited about the work and the client. They may not stay forever, but you can take pride in creating future leaders who will become the next generation of top GCs.
Let me know what you think by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nat Slavin is the publisher of Corporate Legal Times.