Becoming a Successful In-House Counsel

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In-house counsel is a lawyer who works as an employee of a company to provide legal counsel to the company.  This is opposed to an outside counsel who would be a lawyer who works outside of the company’s structure, and is not an employee of the company.

The types and volume of legal work done by an In-house counsel vary depending on the nature and size of the business organization.

Many companies today are launching internal legal functions or growing their corporate legal teams as a way to reduce and manage their external counsel spend. Lawyers who transition from private practice to in-house positions must adapt their skills and mindsets so they can be effective in their dual roles as legal counsel and business partner.

These practical tips though not exhaustive would help lawyers position suitably for in-house job.

Get to Know the Company

As an In-house counsel, your first step is to thoroughly understand the business of your company. This includes being familiar with the business structure, the size of the company’s operations, its employee, scope or intended scope of operations, the company’s approach to risks, its departments and their roles and so on.

You must be able to tell the history and projection of the company.

Determine the Company’s Risk Profile

Public scrutiny of corporate risk management and risk oversight has intensified as a result of the recent financial crisis and the ensuing parade of corporate scandals. While the senior leadership is responsible for risk management and the board of directors is responsible for risk oversight, in-house counsel plays an increasingly important role in a company’s efforts to manage risk.

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Study and Adapt to the Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is the personality of an organization, including its values, behaviors, beliefs and norms, which is demonstrated through how things are done there. Many factors can shape this culture, such as the company’s: Management profile and the tone set from the top; History and development (such as when and how the company was founded and the original values it espoused); Organizational structure (for example, whether management and administration are centralized or decentralized within individual territories, functions or business units); Status as a privately held or publicly traded company; Ownership as a domestic or foreign-owned company; Development stage as a start-up or mature company.

Become a Problem Solver

Internal clients may propose potentially lucrative projects that fail to properly account for risk. Counsel’s initial reaction to protect the company may be to say “no.” Repeatedly giving a negative response, without more, can lead to conflict with the client and counsel’s reputation as a naysayer and obstacle to the business. Counsel should consider the following strategies to overcome that negative perception:

  • Adopt a mindset of mitigating risk rather than eliminating it. Be prepared to assume some risk to give practical advice and solve problems. Risk management (rather than risk avoidance) based on the company’s tolerance for risk can make the company more competitive.
  • Suggest alternatives. Simply prohibiting a problematic business proposal does not help the company achieve its business objectives. Provide suggestions for minimizing the risk through alternative approaches.
  • Say “no” with credibility. When a negative answer is the appropriate response to a particular situation, say “no” to internal clients in a manner they can understand and accept.
  • Build relationships with internal clients. By building solid relationships with internal clients and consistently supporting them in positive ways, counsel can develop trust, value and influence, even when counsel’s advice is “no”
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Manage Work Efficiently

Competent in-house counsel are expected to be responsive to queries and deliver timely and appropriate work product to internal clients. This efficient time and project management are central to helping counsel:

  • Create positive impressions within the company.
  • Maintain the good will of internal clients.
  • Eliminate waste.

Communicate Effectively

In-house counsel add value to the business when they can:

  • Quickly digest a lot of information.
  • Explain key points and complex concepts in a clear, concise and non-technical manner.
  • Enable management and other corporate leaders to make informed business decisions.

Counsel should consider the following steps to communicate effectively with internal clients and external business partners:

  • Speak the common language.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Tailor communications to the audience.
  • Explain risks coherently.
  • Communicate frequently.
  • Consider privilege issues.

Develop As a Generalist

Sometimes  In-house counsel are  surprised at the broad range of legal questions raised by the company. If not specializing in a particular practice area within a large legal department, In-house counsel are usually expected to be generalists. Counsel should consider the following strategies to develop and succeed as a generalist:

  • Candidly admit not knowing an answer on the spot.
  • Use good judgment and instinct to provide initial guidance.
  • Embrace new challenges.
  • Be deliberate about professional development.

Be More Than the Lawyer

In addition to traditional legal responsibilities, in-house counsel often assume ancillary responsibilities that include areas such as corporate governance, compliance, human resources and risk management. Counsel should consider the following approaches to manage these roles:

  • Be an active business partner.
  • Be a team leader.
  • Develop business skills.
  • Understand financial concepts.
  • Acquire knowledge that adds value to the company.
  • Go above and beyond to complete a project.
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