Community Perspectives: As in-house counsel, how did you learn the actual business on which you advise?

In-house legal professionals talk about how they learned their industry in conjunction with their work.

Community Perspectives: As in-house counsel, how did you learn the actual business on which you advise?

(Author) Counsel

How did you learn more about the actual business you advise? I'm struggling applying business considerations into my legal advice and I’m afraid I’m pissing off my executives.

General Counsel Responses:

  • Schedule meetings with business owners whose units you advise. Product managers. Ops people. Licensing managers. Ask them what their KPIs are, quarterly goals, etc.

  • Spend time with your client and get to know them and their pain and pleasure points. I strive to ask questions like a judge; slow and straight forward and no stone unturned. It may make you look a bit dim in their eyes for a bit, but it is worth the investment. Better than running headlong in the wrong direction!

  • This is the difference between being a valued business partner who they trust and listen to and just another suit they try to bypass.

  • I work in Ag and try to spend as much time in the fields as I can justify. Probably not entry level work but at least being out there with the crews and supervisors.

  • I’m in renewables and I go out on installs and listen in on sales calls.

Counsel Responses:

  • Ask lots and lots of questions. “Sorry, I know this might be a dumb question, but….”

  • Gain experience doing the job? Why do you think McDonald’s lawyers work store shifts? The first thing I did when I started construction law was take some entry level construction shifts. Then I started working out of office trailers to learn the management. Then I shadowed finance and learned p&l; top line/bottom line considerations; staffing cost; et. al. You’re not going to find a body in the Starbucks C-suite that can’t make a mocha frappe at any given Starbucks store.

  • No different than you’d educate a jury on technical matters. You need a subject matter expert.

  • Assuming there’s some kind of sales component to your business, ask to be included in quarterly sales forecast calls. Made a world of difference for me in my first commercial gig.

Attorney and Associate Responses:

  • For me, it’s a combination of learning on the job, going to industry conferences, reading all company materials I can get my hands on, and checking out close competitors. I read S-1s and 10-Ks to get a sense of what these companies’ objectives and risk-factors are and tried to figure out how that could be relevant to my company. I had to learn the risk tolerance of different members of my exec team and their preferred communication styles and tailor advice accordingly.

  • Get 30-60 minute one-on-ones with the head of any group that you will interact with on a regular basis. Then do the same for someone who is in the day-to-day and gets their hands dirty. Ask questions about where they each see legal fitting in and what they do in their day-to-day. This will help build relationships across the board and let you ask the “dumb” questions. It also builds a trust that they can come to you with questions they may think are dumb. I’ve been in-house for three years and still ask the dumb question or ask for someone’s opinion in the business about how to look at certain things. They will appreciate your openness and help you learn while you do the same from the legal perspective. Ultimately they’re your client but you’re also all on the same team trying to make the company successful.

  • I set a lot of 1:1 and read a lot of company policies.

  • Industry and investment analyst reports, public filings of my company and its competitors, google alerts on industry topics, befriending individuals in key positions in the organization (the identity of whom will depend on the industry, but marketing is one possibility) and talking to them about your company's products and industry.

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