You’ll be battling a stereotype from Day One
While some are viewed as a valuable resource, many non-lawyers in the company automatically stereotype company attorneys as mere red tape, as an expense, or as an obstacle to be avoided (or derided as the “Department of Sales Prevention”). “Often, lawyers are considered overhead in a corporate situation, and to be a success, it really helps to be able to show how you contribute to the bottom line or at least don’t add significantly to it,” says Slater. In-house attorneys always have to manage expectations and demonstrate over time how their legal skill set contributes to the collective goals of the company.
The best way to demonstrate this value is to be able to communicate and express ideas in a quick, clear way in order to give guidance and ideas for next steps. “Bottom-line communication ability – can you say things in three bullet points or less, and in plain English?” says Slater. “Being able to break down a legal issue simply and coherently to get to why this is an issue from a business perspective is a huge skill that will be valued. Can you give ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, and, if the answer is ‘No’, can you come up with alternatives or work-arounds?”
Many business types think lawyers are put on earth to tell them ‘No’. To combat this, successful in-house attorneys are responsive (even if they are still working on an answer) and provide the business units with alternatives to mull on and consider. This interaction can build trust and shows that the attorneys is indeed on their side and contributing to business persons personal goals and the overall growth of the company.
You don’t need to know the answer immediately . . . but you do need to understand the question
In-house attorneys are often called upon to advise on areas of the law in which they have little or no experience. While this is a major challenge, rest assured that one does not need to know every answer fired his or her way. Nor does an in-house need to be a jack-of-all-trades. But what company attorneys must be able to do well is to understand how to frame the question.
This means that a successful in-house attorney knows the business and the various units well enough that when a question arises, they can accurately spot the issue, and ask the question, either to outside counsel or back to the business unit, that allows for him or her to understand what really is at issue and what next steps need to be taken.
All of a sudden, you are now the client
In-house counsel likely has the resources of an outside law firm as support. While this support is often very helpful, there are some considerations to keep in mind. First, the decision to use a firm may have been previously made by a higher-up, so the legal staff might end up having to deal with an outside firm they otherwise wouldn’t want to work with. “Some general counsels maintain a very tight rein on who the company or institution uses as outside counsel and you may not be able to influence that, which means you will need to deal with outside counsel that you did not appoint and that you may not fit well with,” points out Slater.
In addition, in-house attorneys may now be responsible for smartly and effectively managing a legal budget. “Management will give you a pile of money,” says Heller, “and say ‘this is how much you can spend, make the most of it’.” This requires an in-house attorney to understand the business well enough in order to frame legal questions to outside counsel accurately and with clear instructions . . . so the outside firm’s work can be focused and the budget used effectively. “If you understand your company’s business well, you gain the confidence of how to use your legal budget well,” says Heller.
Third, while an outside counsel is a great resource, it can cause an in-house attorney to question his or her value to the company, as an in-house can often fell like a go-between or messenger delivering the firm’s advice. But a good inside counsel stays abreast of new legal developments and proactively researches how those developments will affect the organization.
You won’t need those business cards
Client development, takes on a new form once you’ve gone in-house. In the firm, client development can take up a good chunk of time. In-house attorneys often aren’t required to do this. This can be good or bad: “If you like to schmooze and consider this a strength of yours, you likely won’t be doing much of this as in-house counsel,” points out Heller.
There is a career path
Before going in-house, one should consider the possible career paths. Generally speaking, there is a fairly well established career growth path for in-house counsels: First as corporate counsel, then as senior corporate counsel, and then as general counsel for a private company. Then you can do it all over again for a public company. Many in-house attorneys, having been exposed to the rigors of company life, often branch out and begin their own businesses.
While in-house counsel can be a popular choice for many lawyers looking for a career shift, the role should be assessed in light of one’s specific professional skills, strengths and passions. Moving from an undesirable situation at the firm without critically examining whether an in-house role is a true fit with one’s strengths will only further perpetuate one’s dissatisfaction. No matter how many more free weekends one now has . . .