In-House Counsel

House Rules: Now What? Learning the In-House Ropes

Now what?

You’re sitting in your new office, with a blank stare out the window, and like Redford in “The Candidate” you say: “Now what?”

Your next move largely depends on the size of your in-house department. Departments with six or fewer attorneys make up approximately 60% of in-house legal offices. Most in-house lawyers therefore have vastly more legal issues on their plate than I, where we have almost 200 attorneys. I am specialized in my company, and am required to focus on closing deals. We have a patent department, litigation department, labor and employment department, and on and on.

Attorneys in my company are also expected to become subject matter experts in a relevant topic, and mine happens to be software licensing. This level of specialization is nowhere to be found for most in-house counsel. Most are expected to be at least somewhat knowledgeable on a vast array of topics: compliance, securities, mergers and acquisitions, et cetera. I am always humbled when I speak to groups of in-house attorneys, because I know that most of them are expected to handle a huge number of topics in order to represent their clients well.

So, you may be asking, now what?

For me, my next move was to educate myself (as no one held my hand through the seemingly endless policies and procedures) on the workings and expectations of my clients. At the same time, I was educating myself on the infrastructure of my company and its products and services. After time at 30,000 feet, I drilled down on my specific areas of responsibility, again, largely on my own. This is not to say that there was no support for me, I simply had to ask.

One of the most important lessons I learned in private practice was when to say “I don’t know.” As a new attorney in a 16 billion dollar global company, there was a great deal that I didn’t know. Trial by fire is an understatement. But I readily admitted ignorance to anyone who would listen, and after time, I gained enough knowledge to be dangerous. And dangerous I would be. Thus, it very soon came time to use another lesson from private practice: when to gracefully admit that I screwed up.

As with most new endeavors, the people you have come to work for know that you likely don’t know boo about your new role. This “honeymoon” period is the time to make honest mistakes, and to learn from them; ignorance is expected, and stupidity is frowned upon. Asking as many questions as possible is appropriate, as is using your time wisely to learn everything you can about your company, and how it really works internally (politically).

This involves no small amount of diplomacy. You learn the workings of your company from the inside, as opposed to simply reading the publicly available statements. You begin to learn where the bodies are buried, and you learn to navigate any potential minefields. This period is perhaps the most stressful aspect of going in-house. You don’t know enough to make the carefully thought out decisions that you made in private practice. And those less than thorough decisions will be acted on in real-time by your clients. This is when the first lesson of business kicks in: know when to pull the trigger.

It may be discomfiting at first, but you soon become acclimated to pulling the trigger in a business environment. Thoughts and decisions begin to come easier and much faster. After a while, you learn that the decisions are correct, and success begins to flow to you in the form of closed deals and satisfied clients. Perhaps you receive a year end bonus for the hard work you’ve put in, or perhaps you receive incentive shares in the company. Whatever form they take, the rewards of your job begin to come your way. You begin to feel a confidence in what you’re doing.

Then, the rug gets pulled out, and you have to start back with lessons one and two.

After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at

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