Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Horizontal career moves are good for in-house counsel

Do you view a successful in-house career as being “vertical” (up the corporate ladder) rather than “horizontal”? Don’t feel alone, but think again.

Legal career opportunities are mostly horizontal (lateral). Although vertical moves (promotions) can be desirable, they also are rare for in-house counsel. So obsessing on promotions may lead to job unhappiness.

The career-success myth. When I considered the question, vertical moves was my first answer. Then I started thinking about my own career. I’ve had only one traditional promotion. While developing expertise and seasoning, almost every move (whether in-house or in private practice) has been horizontal (lateral) in nature.

My experience is typical. After all, there are a limited number of management positions for in-house counsel.

Job happiness. A key reason not to feel stymied with horizontal moves is that they provide you with change, growth, and leadership opportunities that are important for job happiness.

It's my belief that in-house counsel can provide leadership from any position in the organization, irrespective of whether you have direct reports. But it's harder for you to be LeadingInHousesm if you're muddled in job unhappiness. So if job happiness is important to you (I assume that it is), then focus on making successful horizontal moves (within or without the organization).

For more on the topic of “job happiness,” see my earlier post How to be more happy (or less unhappy) at your job as in-house counsel (LIH, June 2011).

You're not alone. As an in-house counsel, you are not alone in horizontal career moves being typical and desirable. As recent blog posts recount, today, vertical careers are the exception rather than the rule:
  • Rather than being accomplished through layers of management, “most work is accomplished through horizontal processes that cut across different functions, geographies, and specialties. Therefore real success comes less from controlling people that report to you, and more from the ability to align stakeholders who surround you. . . .  More and more . . . the real contributors will be the process owners and project leaders that are able to provide horizontal leadership.” Your Career Needs to Be Horizontal (Ron Ashkenas, Mar. 2012).
  • “Reaching the apex of the career ladder by gradually getting promoted to the top is a thing of the past. From my experience as a career coach, career ladders in most organizations have not existed for at least fifteen years.” There Is No Career Ladder (Priscilla Claman, Feb. 2012).
  • ". . . traditional career planning is both a waste of time and potentially dangerous. A career plan can lead you into a false sense of confidence, where you fail to see opportunities as they arise and miss taking smart steps you otherwise hadn't otherwise planned for.” Career Plans are Dangerous (HBR, March 2012).
  • "Staying relevant. My goal is definitely to stay relevant. Since I work in technology, staying relevant is hard, since so much technology is started by 25-30 year olds. And so, you really need to work at it, and again, a lot of networking helps you keep on top of things." Who Really Understands Where He'll Be in 25 Years? (HBR, Mar. 2011).
This summary was prepared by Perry Cone and posted at

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