Better structure or simply title inflation?

At a cocktail event recently, an in-house lawyer suggested an interesting topic for us to explore might be this idea of title inflation in corporate legal departments. He felt there seemed to be quite a mash up of titles emerging from some large departments. Are the titles an attempt to appease and retain ambitious lawyers with their eye on the general counsel office or are they a way for the legal department to behave like any other business unit with layers of seniority?

One general counsel I recently spoke with suggested it may be a way to indicate to those outside the department or at an external law firm that they are dealing with someone not necessarily at the GC level, but with a more defined role other than “legal” or “senior counsel.”

I asked some of our InHouse View participants about this and Mary Martin of Metrolinx indicated for her, it’s not an issue of title inflation but a reflection of where more senior lawyers are in their career and creates a more clearly delineated structure in the department.

As Martin told me: “One of the problems with in-house departments that a lot of people talk about is that they are very flat. There is the general counsel and then there is everybody else. If the general counsel doesn’t look like she or he is approaching retirement there isn’t much place for anyone else to go.”

Last year, another GC echoed this same sentiment, noting it was a lingering concern for her as she looked at her own highly competent and ambitious legal team. How long would they be content to stay? Were they getting enough interesting work? Did they have concerns about developing their management skills?

Martin, with a team of 16 lawyers, recently decided it was time to change things up — from a structure where everyone reported to her to one in which there was the equivalent of vice president, director, and manager levels in the legal department. She appointed two associate general counsel. One of them is on the commercial side and one is on the real estate side. Those are the only two lawyers who now report to her other than the associate corporate secretary. The rest report up according to title. The structure parallels the management level structure in the rest of Metrolinx.

She says she “thinks it’s important the rest of the organization see the lawyers for the senior professionals they are. If you are a director level person you are a pretty senior person and somehow that can be lost if you’re part of one large group with no levels within it.”

Martin felt the change was important, too, in developing the leadership skills of those in her department. Mentoring now takes place and annual performance plans are done according to the reporting structure.

Martin is quick to note that even though she has reduced her number of direct reports it doesn’t mean she is completely removed from what’s happening day-to-day in the department. She’s cognizant of the importance of getting the balance right.

In the case of Metrolinx, the issue of creating new job titles and reporting lines answered both the question of “where can I go?” for the more junior lawyers and gave more senior ones a means to “train” for a bigger role.
And as legal departments are increasingly trying to show they are not “exceptions” to the business it also demonstrates they function like one.

Do you agree, or disagree with this concept? Drop me a line.

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