In-house career progression is very different to private practice due to the inherent differences in utilisation and measurement of legal resources.
As a fee earner in a law firm, you can create your own promotion opportunities through revenue and profit contribution, client development and referred work. In comparison, in-house legal teams are generally a support function to the operational and commercial business units (albeit a very valuable and influential support) and the size and structure of most teams are largely pre-determined.
In-house legal teams grow and change, typically, in tandem with the fortunes of the business they support. Teams also tend to be less hierarchical and more flat-structured, resulting in fewer obvious opportunities for upward career progression.
You can certainly advance your career in-house, but since every business has a different structure or business model, progression can take different forms. For example: being promoted to a legal leadership, management or general counsel role; becoming a high-level advisory or transactional lawyer to a specific business unit; pursuing an operational or commercial career path within the business, and so on.
To progress within a corporate structure, you need to understand the commercial environment you are working in and how to add most value in order to separate yourself from your peers. Your internal client group is usually just as influential as your direct legal manager in deciding if you should be selected for advancement to more senior roles, given their stakeholder status. For the most senior roles such as general counsel, head of legal etc... the business leaders (CEO, CFO etc), would make the appointment directly.
Assuming your legal skills are already of a high calibre, there will be added focus on the additional leadership and commercial skills you possess. Maturity, credibility and the ability to influence others on a consistent basis are key leadership traits. Strong communication and relationship-building skills, along with commercial acumen, are vital in establishing your commercial value to the business.
For some people, these traits come naturally, while others may need to consciously develop them. Ultimately, you need to be viewed internally as a problem solver and trusted adviser to the business, rather than a black letter lawyer. Business leaders require legal risk managers and problem solvers, so model your approach around this requirement by making sure you understand the legal/business dynamic within your organisation.