The Secret to Keeping Top Talent


How to keep top talent in the legal department is a major issue for most general counsel because most legal departments are flat and there is only one general counsel role. If the lawyer's goal is to become a general counsel, provide them with opportunities and incentives. Even though you will eventually lose the lawyer if successful, they will likely provide many years of excellent service to your company—and, they would have left many years earlier if not given this opportunity.

Here are a few ways to keep them for as long as you can:

Skill Building

The most important factor in keeping top legal talent happy and engaged is to provide opportunities to learn new things and expand their legal/business expertise. This can be accomplished in many ways. First, legal departments can move lawyers to new areas of responsibility. Give lawyers opportunities to do something outside their normal scope of responsibility, such as compliance, privacy or ESG.  

Another way successful in-house lawyers can often accomplish expanding their skills is by building relationships. As they prove their value as business partners, internal clients may ask them to participate in new areas where they can further develop their legal skills. This will give them exposure to other areas of the business while allowing them to utilize their expertise in a new way.

Often a top in-house lawyer will develop opportunities to work on matters with only a quasi-legal component—or none at all. Developing business skills is a necessary skill for any successful general counsel or in-house lawyer. I remember being asked by a VP to be part of a team being created to look at potential new lines of business. He said to me, "Ron, we are not asking you because of your legal skills, but because you always have good ideas." Find ways to capitalize on their other skills and put them to work on projects or with business units they wouldn’t normally have access to in their day-to-day job.

Compensation & Title

Certainly, it is no surprise that money and title are key factors in keeping your legal team happy. But this is a challenge with the typical flat structure of a legal department and salary pressure from the non-legal part of the business. With the incredible salaries being paid to first-year associates at the top firms, offering a competitive salary to attract and keep in-house legal talent is becoming more difficult. Law firm associates understand they are going to take a hit when they move in-house, but there is often a psychological barrier not to make less than a first-year associate. Offering incentives that are appealing and can benefit the lawyer even momentarily can make a role more attractive, including extra vacation time, bonuses and wellness services.

There are a couple of steps that companies can take to maintain the morale of top lawyers. While general counsel must typically work within the company salary bands, often more than one title can be given to a lawyer within one salary band in recognition of their work and experience. For example, you could have the titles of counsel and senior counsel for lawyers within the “Director” salary band. When you can promote a lawyer to the “Senior Director” salary band, titles such as assistant general counsel and associate general counsel could be used. Possibly titles such as assistant vice president and vice president could follow, although this may not be possible given the company policy on who gets a vice president title.

You can increase the compensation and change the job title to acknowledge the experience and performance of a lawyer as they increase the scope of the without having to move an attorney into an entirely new role (that may not be available) to get a promotion and title change.


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