The reasons to promote internally are compelling, even if in-house succession planning presents challenges.
The appointment of the new director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders attracted attention in part because she was an internal promotion, rather than a selection from the self-employed bar.
The CPS’s record of appointing external candidates does not differentiate it from many businesses. Barclays’ outgoing general counsel Mark Harding came from Clifford Chance, and executive search consultants routinely present blue chip companies with shortlists that include plenty of names from private practice.
The reasons to promote internally though are compelling.
It’s not just that there is a culture shock for those moving from private practice to positions in-house – a problem that doesn’t decrease with the passing years.
An internal candidate carries the advantage of knowing the business – its politics and its processes. They know the external advisers, which is an advantage, for example, if they wish to shake up an advisory panel.
The internal candidate will have some facility with the business’s risk profile – and crucially its appetite for risk. And in a part of the legal profession where career management within departments can be an issue, an internal candidate demonstrates what is possible to other ambitious lawyers in the department.
So far, so convincing.
The problem is that in-house succession planning presents significant challenges.
People making a senior appointment seldom appointment someone they believe will quickly grow in the role – they like someone who looks like the finished product. Yet ‘grooming’ a successor in a small or medium-sized legal department can be somewhat ‘political’.
What’s more, as one thinks about the balance of personality ‘types’ and legal specialisms needed to run the department, it can be hard to find a role that is designed for the GC’s ideal ‘mini-me’.
Perhaps the best thing a GC working on the succession plan can do is to be very, very open to supporting colleagues’ attempts to grow while in role – whether by involvement in non-legal projects that are important to the business, charity work that gains them governance experience, or training in areas such as finance or even marketing.
Delegation of tasks and opportunities by the GC to other team is also an important part of this.
An internal candidate will not always be the best person, and there is of course a healthy traffic of in-house lawyers who move between GC roles.
But internal promotion should at least be a serious option, and it is worth planning to make that possible.