Charting an In-House Career Path: Better to Go Big or Small?

Source: Corporate Counsel Read the full .PDF article

Note: This is the debut of "Career Counsel," a CorpCounsel.com column focused on career-development advice for in-house counsel.

Numerous candidates have come to me with the following question: how do they choose between the option of being a division general counsel of a large public company or GC of a smaller private company? Or, at the non-GC level, they face the quandary of joining the legal department at a large public company in a more specialized or "siloed" role versus a smaller private company with a broader range of responsibilities.

The short answer is, of course: It depends. These decisions need to be made after a case-by-case analysis tailored to you and your career goals. But for most in-house counsel facing choices like these, below are some considerations that might help guide the decision:

  • What is your main career goal for the next five years?
  • What is your end career goal? (For example, do you want to be a GC of a Fortune 500 company, or be deeply involved with the business of a tech start-up?)
  • Do you want to manage others? (If so, how large of a team?)
  • Do you seek opportunities to manage more functions than just the legal department?
  • Are you trying to segue into a new industry or build a bridge to a new practice area?

Type of Work

Joining a larger public company means there are more specialists to handle the myriad of complex legal issues and work specific to public companies. While you may have to start with your area of expertise (e.g., handling complex contracts for a big company), there might be opportunities to gain experience with public company work in the event the department is short-handed (e.g., you might learn about intellectual property from handling big licensing contracts).

Expand your experience base in this way and you'll begin to set up a next move toward your goals. And if you gain that experience at a larger company with a recognized brand name, it may position you to transfer within that sector into a more senior position for a smaller company.

But there's a downside to working at a large company in a particular business sector. There's a danger for in-house counsel of getting pigeon-holed into an industry that does not have long-term prospects for you. And although I’m seeing more transfers between highly regulated industries, such as moves from health care to financial services to tech, etc., you can't count on ease of mobility from one sector to another.

Type of Work Environment

Beyond the type of company you want to work for, also ask yourself questions about the type of work environment you thrive in. What kind of corporate culture do you enjoy? Joining a smaller company has many of its own advantages—if you're the type of person who thrives on doing a variety of work, including interacting more with the business functions, then this path could be a better fit. At a smaller company, you might get a seat at the table and engage in the day-to-day of running a business. Decisions are made much more rapidly, and your input might be more impactful. You also may have to do more hand-holding with executives who have less professional maturity. Furthermore, how risk tolerant are you? Smaller companies have a greater chance of being sold, so you may need to change jobs more frequently. (Of course, there's often an equity upside for less cash compensation.)

On the other hand, if you like the stability of an established company and the idea of being at a place long-term, then a large public company might be more suitable. Bigger companies tend to be more political and more bureaucratic, however. Decisions get made by consensus or hierarchy, and therefore may take longer. Promotions also may be dependent on your political aptitude and savvy.

Also consider: Do you like maintaining processes already in place, or creating new ones? Do you enjoy being constantly in a crises? Rapid changes mean growing pains, but can be exciting if that motivates you.

Of course, there are many other considerations outside of the big public/small private considerations (including the leadership of the legal department and whether career development takes a priority in promotional decisions), which I’ll look to address in a future column. But for our topic today, keep these factors in mind and make a change that you believe is for a good reason—and that can tell the story of your career progression on your resume and in your next interview.

See the full-feature article on Corporate Counsel, February 9, 2015.

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Jay KimJay Kim is a Managing Director with the San Francisco office of executive legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. She focuses on in-house searches and has placed attorneys in both small private companies as well as Fortune 500 companies.

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