July 27, 2015
What is the right length of time to stay in an in house job?
The right length of time to stay in a role or in a company can be the same or different depending on how your role evolves over time. Also, the definition of “right length of time” is relative. I don’t think there is necessarily a “wrong” length of time – as circumstances can vary in each situation. But for the non-GC in house lawyer, leaving too soon or staying too long as measured by today’s legal employment market can create obstacles from a career marketability perspective. So your question is important. I define the “right” length generally as the appropriate amount of time in a role or company from a strategic career perspective as well as what is acceptable to prospective employers.
Assuming you have career goals that you would like to achieve, the sweet spot for the amount of time to stay in a role is between 4-5 years (and in some instances 3 years). After Year Two, your role should be evolving in some way in order to maximize its value – i.e. greater responsibility, more management interaction, expanding your substantive skill set, managing more people and/or title upgrade etc. More money in and of itself won’t be sufficient. You will need to grow as a lawyer – as this is what will enhance your future marketability. If there is no additional opportunity for growth or advancement within this 4-5 year timeframe (in some geographic regions this range can stretch to 7-8 years), you should start exploring your options in the market for your next step forward.
If your advancement continues in a meaningful way beyond Year 5 (maybe it’s the same role enhanced or a different role altogether) and you want to stay with the company, you will have an additional 3-4 year window before your tenure starts to become an outlier. At that point, you’ll encounter some potential hurdles if/when you are ready to leave – as employers may start to think your experience is stale or you’re nice and cozy in your old familiar role. These challenges are not necessarily insurmountable; although they do get more difficult the longer you stay. So you will need to assess whether staying longer will be too much of a detriment in advancing your goals.
If you are a GC, these timeframes aren’t necessarily the same – as GCs tend to be far less mobile than other lawyer profiles and longer tenure does not carry the same career risks. With this said, there can be a time tipping point for GCs too. There is no one uniform number, but if you’re hitting 15 years with one company, your tenure will likely be an interview topic. So you will need to demonstrate how your role has changed and/or how your company has evolved.
Being aware of how potential employers view a candidate’s tenure in his/her current company is important. But there is no set “rule” as to how long is too long or long enough. So try not to focus too much on the hard numbers. Your professional development and evolution as well as personal happiness are the most important priorities as you execute your strategy to reach your goals. The key here is happiness and fulfillment. And if yours extends beyond the numbers above, then sticking with a good thing is best choice of all.