Here are seven tips that can help an in house counsel:
The level of expectations will be high
Given that you may be the only lawyer or one of the few legal professionals in the company, your position as the in house counsel will automatically make you a reference point for every legal inquiry. Your colleagues and bosses will tend to assume you know the answers to all of their law-related questions or dilemmas. Sometimes they will even come to you with legal problems of a more personal nature, even if it is regarding an area of law you don’t know much about. Being able to give an on the spot response to such legal concerns would be great. However, there is nothing wrong in not giving the answer immediately. Understanding that it is okay to double check on what you know, before responding to legal queries or proceeding to carry out a research on an area entirely would not make you less competent. The most important thing is for you to give accurate answers and practical solutions to legal concern in the company. It is a delicate position to be in, but try your best to be helpful and where it is absolutely necessary, refer them to an expert specializing in the particular field.
You will sometimes feel like you don’t belong
Coming to a company as in-house straight from a legal practice or law school can feel as a bit of a shock for most: You have spent a lot of time with people who think like you, have the same interests and work in the same field. All of a sudden, everyone meets your lawyer jokes with a puzzled frown, and you too feel like you could use a glossary for the company’s vernacular being casually thrown around. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it very soon – and you’ll also learn to think outside your strictly legal box in order to accommodate all the different profiles of your clients.
Go easy on the legalese
Similar to the previous point, it’s important you stay rooted and down to the earth, instead of looking down on everyone from your professional high horse. Act as a mediator and interpreter of law for your clients, and explain things in the simplest manner possible, devoid of jargon or direct quotations from the law. People either want to know if it’s okay to (not) do something, or how to do (not) do it – they want it straightforward, without the intricate legal technicalities. They will leave those up to you.
Thinking commercially is key!
Working in-house means you’ll be working on a wide range of matters for your one client, i.e. your employer – which automatically propels you into thinking like them. View every problem or challenge that lands on your desk both from a legal and commercial aspect. Nobody wants to hear a strict and resolute no; often your job will be finding a solution in terms of “not yet, but” or “no, unless…”. Finding alternative solutions or legal loopholes around a certain problem, for example, is what will prove you indispensable for the team.
You have to establish a firm position
Don’t wait around for people to come over to you; same as HR, legal needs to be proactive and at the employee’s disposal as much as possible. If things are slow, especially at first, go “look for trouble” yourself! Not only will it make you look good in the eyes of the management, but will also give you a chance to get to know everyone and establish a sense of trust right from the beginning.
Your colleagues are also your clients
While sometimes you will be the client, communicating with external counsel about legal matters that do not fall in your area of expertise, most of the times you will have to work with clients that are also your colleagues. Having this “2-in-1” relationship works for the advantage of both you, the in-house lawyers, as well as your teammates: it’s much easier to build a more casual atmosphere and instill mutual trust than if you were an external professional billing your clients by the hour. However, that does not mean you should treat your colleagues any differently than your most important clients, which they are. Prioritizing your workload is okay, in fact, it’s essential – but don’t dismiss or ignore anyone in the company who reached out for your help. Remember that you’re here to help the company, and not the other way round.
Stay in the professional loop
The relatively cushy in-house position can make you feel safe and relaxed, but on the downside, it bears the potential danger of falling out of your professional loop. Now that you’re not meeting new lawyers and facing new cases every day, you might feel like your legal prowess is losing its edge. Your connections are not as strong as they used to be, and you can’t remember the last time you’ve attended a training seminar. Close that gap and stay connected to the legal circles as much as you can! Attend networking events, seminars, lectures, discuss on online boards and LinkedIn groups – whatever works for you is fine, as long as you’re still an active and relevant member of the professional community in your area.