After a few years of private practice I began to contemplate the big question: should I stay or should I go . . . in-house.
At the time it seemed to be the most important decision of my career. I knew that once I went down the in-house path, I’d have difficulty returning to private practice. To help me come to a decision, I made a list of the pros and cons. In hindsight, I realized my struggle was leaving behind what I had always imagined my legal career would look like: having a law practice.
Now after a few years in-house, I see colleagues struggling with the same question but in a different context. Their big decision is whether to stay in the legal group or go to another area of the bank’s business.
Opportunities and struggles
In my decision to go in-house, I hadn’t considered whether the move would provide me with opportunities to move outside the legal group. In fact, contemplating a non-legal role wasn’t on my radar.
However, in the past few years I have seen many of my colleagues and friends at other companies move from in-house positions to non-legal roles. At BMO, the legal group encourages moves within the group and to other areas of the bank. In 2014, 23 people moved to different roles within the group and 34 people joined other areas of BMO. In addition, 15 people have taken secondments both within and outside the legal group. While at the bank, I have seen lawyers move into roles within asset management, compliance, investor relations, fraud, brand strategy, anti-money laundering, privacy, and the ombudsman’s office. Many of these moves have been initiated by the legal group’s leadership team; this is welcomed by the lines of business who value the skills a lawyer brings to the team.
While movement between different groups is common practice in other areas of BMO, it isn’t second nature for a legal professional to consider. I checked in with a couple of colleagues who’ve made an internal move to see how they made their decision. Scott Selig, who made the transition to BMO’s ombudsman’s office, feels many lawyers don’t consider a move to a non-legal role because they only identify as a lawyer and are tied to the title and other functions of the job. Another colleague, Kerri Salata, had a more personal reason for debating a move: “I went to law school to pursue something I always dreamed of being . . . a lawyer. That isn’t easy to give up.” Kerri started as a litigation lawyer at BMO and is now in the business intelligence group with investigative & security services. While she struggled with leaving her litigation role, the opportunities won her over — many that weren’t available to her in a legal role. She now manages two teams and has developed new skills by working with people with different educational backgrounds. Plus, as part of a rapidly growing area, Kerri sees opportunities for advancement at a much faster pace than those available to her as a lawyer. Above all, she realizes other groups in the bank value her strategic skills as much as they do her legal and management abilities.
Taking the leap with a safety net
Within BMO’s legal group, a common approach to trying something outside legal is through a secondment; this typically means covering a leave or joining a team during a busy period. This lets lawyers explore other areas of the bank and lend their skills to a new team, while still having the security of returning to their legal role at the end of the secondment. Some use a secondment to gain hands-on experience they can take back to their legal role. Others use it as an entrance to a new career path.
Neither Kerri nor Scott were looking to leave the law. Both started in their respective groups in a seconded role, thinking they were going to return to their legal roles. However, when permanent opportunities opened up they both jumped at the chance. Without the secondment, it’s likely neither of them would have considered looking for roles in those areas.
In the end, many people I spoke with said the talent development opportunity influenced their decision to make the switch. By gaining business experience, they feel more marketable within the banking industry. As these moves become more common and lawyers look to advance their careers, I suspect they’ll worry less about their title and more about finding opportunities that expand their skills and provide a broader range of experiences. While I love my current role, I just might consider doing the same.
Bindu Dhaliwal is associate general counsel & director, environmental, social and governance for BMO Financial Group. She can be reached at email@example.com.