Conversation with clients: career progression for IHLs

As a part of our conversation with clients webinar series, Helen Wilson, Head of Legal at Weetabix joined Sebastian Price, Partner at Shoosmiths to talk about her experience of career development including success insights, job changes, individual versus organisational impact on progression and more.

As a part of our conversation with clients webinar series, Helen Wilson, head of legal at Weetabix joined Sebastian Price, partner at Shoosmiths to talk about her experience of career development including success insights, job changes, individual versus organisational impact on progression and more.

Outline of Helen’s career

Helen has worked in a variety of roles in-house and in private practice. She is also part of the O-shaped lawyer movement, which focuses on investment in people. She qualified in 1999 and joined DLA Piper as a transactional finance lawyer before moving to Geldard’s five years later where she practiced banking and finance specialising in invoice discounting and M&A activity.

She was headhunted to be a partner in 2008 after maternity leave and in 2014 went in-house for an entertainment company, then joined a software business that was getting ready for sale before joining Weetabix. 

What has driven Helen’s success?

  • Having a growth mindset and flexibility – from finance to commercial, with a variety of paths
  • Building a brand and focusing  on positive enabling
  • Developing personal relationships and maintaining a great network  despite career moves
  • Working with brilliant teams
  • Mental toughness, resilience and competitiveness
  • Bringing her authentic self to work
  • A strong support network at home

Making decisions about what’s important

  • At the start of her career it was a very straightforward path to success based on climbing the ladder
  • Helen advises to think about what your career goals are – challenge the traditional perception
  • Learn to prioritise
  • Accept that some periods may be more challenging than others - having supportive team is crucial
  • Covid-19 has helped to change the profession to provide flexibility and individuals in teams should embrace that to get the most out of work and home life 

When can it help to change positions

  • Law firm experience is essential to make a great IHL and business partner 
  • A good, solid grounding in private practice means different exposure to areas and developing transferrable skills on top of lawyering
  • Enjoying the job and day-to-day and the people that you work with
  • In-house can be intense with extensive demands 

To what extent is career progression down to luck?

  • There is an element of right place at right time – such as the Weetabix job for Helen
  • If a clear career path isn’t there, then a great business case is needed, board support and budget or wait for someone to move on
  • Post-Covid, the role of the IHL has moved on so much – if you can develop a role without the title, then you can get deeper enjoyment, broader experience which can help in getting ready for moving up to next role

Does career progression depend on you or the willingness of your organisation?

  • It is down to you and your career and life goals 
  • Demonstrate what you have developed and achieved – cost efficiencies, improvements etc. 
  • Drive forward to get best out of your job and the profession

How can senior IHLs help junior IHLs?

  • Businesses need well rounded lawyers with great technical skills
  • There is a deeper demand for business partnership, collaboration, emotional intelligence, resilience 
  • Set challenging objectives to encourage the outside in – being a lawyer as well as businessperson is important 
  • Continual development – utilise the law firm training
  • Think about internal clients and encourage IHLs to deal with problems in business way not just legal way
  • Adapt style – not realms of text but bullet points and focus, for example
  • Senior lawyers to be leaders and encourage empowerment – no need to supervise everything
  • Build reputation as proactive, business team trying to achieve the same strategic objectives

Thoughts on imposter syndrome

  • May not be experienced in everything – project confidence and assure that you will come back once you have worked out the route
  • Learn to be more empathetic and understanding – ask the team what they think rather than assuming you need to have all the answers
  • Utilise the law firm relationships and network to ask others
  • Confidence – you know more than you think you do
  • Valuable to reflect back on successes

Thoughts on mentoring

  • Flex style of 1-2-1s depending on what is needed
  • Individuals need different approaches
  • Key role is to help juniors progress
  • Typically  mentor non-lawyers who are aspiring leaders in the business – things like building personal brand and managing work-life balance
  • Setting up inboxes for supervision
  • Getting the brief right
  • Trying to be approachable, non-traditional lawyer

How to progress when working in a small team, if sole counsel what are the skills needed

  • Do you enjoy being sole counsel? Need for gap analysis to see what is missing
  • Solid and broad range of legal skills
  • Ability to add value – process improvements
  • What strategies are required if in a team with direct reports – how can you develop people management and coaching skills if looking to move into a team
  • Demonstrate management skills in lots of different ways

View on taking a less senior position in a larger business

  • What’s important to me in a role – 10 wants and needs. Can you tick these off in current role?
  • Does the role give you different business experience
  • Ultimately depends on end goal – if you want to be head of legal in large business then this could be a good move to get the larger business experience 

Building up goodwill to balance work and home demands – how do you manage this in new role?

  • Build reputation and manage stakeholders from day one
  • Stick to guns on what needs to be done – set expectations from the start as long as you put in effort and deliver then it should be supported by a flexible workplace

Any thoughts about AI and how this can impact on careers

  • There are benefits to using AI but doesn’t have the business lens and wider understanding of strategy that a lawyer does

Top tips for new IHLs to get career in right place

  • Know the business inside out – know the bigger picture and what you can bring to the table
  • Take ownership of your own P&L
  • Talk like a businessperson, not like a lawyer


Watch the the recording of the conversation below


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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