This column is inspired by a reader’s topic suggestion, so I start by encouraging you to please contact me with requests. I appreciate them.
A majority of our searches are, in fact, subject matter specific requests. Please get us a great securities, IP or ERISA attorney, etc. Subject matter experts do hit ceilings once in-house, however. In many of the larger legal departments, the top of the ladder for specialists is a senior role reporting to the general counsel, perhaps leading a division within the law department.
For subject matter experts who wish to broaden their expertise, either with ambitions of advancement in mind, or simply for intellectual variety, I offer a concrete suggestion.
Maximize a conference opportunity. Specifically, attend sessions outside your comfort zone. And more importantly, don’t just take the CLE credit. Summarize a few sessions in a short power point and present the best practice takeaway points to your law department. If you were ever in a law firm, recall the monthly lunches at which one of your colleagues would present updates on the law. Be that person who does something similar for your law department. If you want your general counsel to give you access to matters and internal clients outside of your subject matter expertise, this is a great starting point for getting to that result.
Our annual InsideCounsel SuperConference is coming up soon, May 6-8. I know at least two general counsel from large legal departments who send one or two senior counsel level attorneys to attend, take notes and report back on what they learn. I encourage you to own that idea.
If you work in a small to mid-size legal department, your opportunity to break free from a subject matter silo is even greater. Your general counsel is probably stressed in terms of workload and resources, so he or she may be thrilled at your request to take on more work. You just have to convey the confidence and eagerness to do it.
Also, become the answer conduit for nonlawyer managers and executives. You know, your actual clients. Most nonlawyers don’t think in terms of subject matter expertise; they go to lawyers with business problems. Some of you may turn the client problem over to another lawyer (internal or external) when the problem is outside your comfort zone. Unless you risk political hell by taking this advice, I encourage you to own the problem and work with the client on it. That may involve a subject matter learning curve for you, and it may mean tapping into your lawyer/friend network for a little guidance before advising the client.
Once internal clients view you as a problem solver, you are one step closer to the role of general counselor and advisor to the business folks. Now you are breaking beyond your subject matter expertise.