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Community Perspectives: What Does it Take to Survive and Thrive as an In-House Counsel just Transitioning from Law Firms?

In-house legal professionals share their experiences finding and defining success as in-house counsel.

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Community Perspectives: What Does it Take to Survive and Thrive as an In-House Counsel just Transitioning from Law Firms?

What does it take to survive and thrive as an in-house counsel just transitioning from law firms?

  • Focus on the goal they’re trying to achieve and tell them how they can achieve that legally (or with mitigated risk). They don’t want a memo on the range of options and pros/cons. They need explicit guidance on solutions that achieve their goals. Yes, it’s ultimately their decision, but if they make the wrong one you’re stuck cleaning up the mess and are still liable to be blamed. Also; figure out which business partners are ego maniacs who won’t agree to a deal structure unless it was their idea. You need to get involved very early with them and figure them out.
Associate and Attorney Responses:
  • Listen more than you speak. Know when to fight your battles. Get comfortable with saying “I’ll have to look into that and get back to you.” Even when you think you know the legal answer, don’t let the business push you into a response on the spot. There is likely context missing from whatever they ask. Learn the business, people, and goals. Don’t provide a legal answer - provide options in terms of risk. Work on fostering a partnership with the business, so they bring you in early for consulting on issues. Try not to say 'no' unless absolutely necessary. Think outside the box; if something doesn’t work legally, be prepared to pitch an alternative that can get the business where they want to go.
  • I have a few mentees. I think having a mentor and mentoring is super important.
  • Get to know the legal department, and build a working relationship with each of them. Become familiar with the company’s departments and the people on those teams - you will be interacting with them. Learn the company structure quickly since all in-house departments operate differently from firms. In-house requires a business hat, so learning the ropes like this will make the transition a bit smoother.
  • I’d also learn to check your ego at the door, and get in the mindset of learning new things. Depending on the role, you might be expected to be more of a generalist than an expert. I’d also be super friendly with your procurement and operations people (if available), because they tend to be the people who know everything and can steer you in the right direction for specific tasks. I work in a manufacturing area, so the plant manager who’s been there for 30 years is my best friend.
  • Definitely learn the business, and take your time doing it. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions along the way. Like others have said, don’t be the office of “no.” It’s up to the business to take the risk - they ultimately own the risk - so it’s on you to help them make an informed, risk-based decision.

In-house? Join the conversation on Fishbowl (anonymous).

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