A couple of weeks ago I was having a similar conversation, only I was on the other end of it - giving the advice. And while I thought about all of the crazy things I've discovered being in house at start ups and tech companies, the listens learned from that first gig and those first mentors seemed more important. So I'll share the top 5 things for the first in house/GC to do:
1. If possible, only do it once. We all know that a lot of the practice of law is repetition. We negotiate the same clauses in the same agreements with different parties. Which is great when you're a firm lawyer because billables. But in house repetition can kill you. You don't have time to recreate the wheel every time some one needs a contract. Create templates and processes that reduce the amount of time you have to spend on something - eliminate all unnecessary repetition. You'll be so happy you did as you discover the 1000 other things you should be doing with your time that add a lot more value (and visibility) to your role.
2. If it doesn't take a lawyer, don't do it. It's hard, especially in a start up - but there are some things that you are simply over paid to do. This seems to be more of an issue for women lawyers, but it often falls to the first in house person because they are new and their roles are often undefined. But secretary of the board doesn't mean you get coffee for everyone. Nor does being the most efficient mean that you have to coordinate all meetings. You don't need to sit in on every meeting - just ones where you actually add value or get value. And just because your HR person or team lead doesn't want to have a difficult conversation with the employee about their hygiene doesn't mean that you have to do it for them.
3. Know the business better than anyone else. In order to understand the risks you have to mitigate or advise on this strategy or that, you have to understand the business. Get to know how your product and services work on an intimate level. Understand where the money comes from. You don't have to be able to code, but you should be able to explain how it works generally. One of the most irritating things to a business person (and one thing that will get you uninvited to many a meeting) is not understanding the role of the company in the ecosystem. Know your competitors, know your product, know your company. Get in deep even when there are no legal issues at play. Once you understand that, you'll be a million times more productive in all the rest of your job.
4. Technology is your friend. Ten years ago the best technology we had to help our in house practice was word processing and maybe, if you were really ahead of the game, Sharepoint. Now, there are a ton of technical tools that can streamline processes and add automated controls so that you don't have to personally be involved in every thing that the legal department does. You may spend a little upfront, but what you spend in development costs is saved in personnel and overhead. Just like the tools for every other department, some of these can be homegrown adaptations of existing platforms or completely custom tools built in house. Others can be bought off the shelf or modified by a vendor. There is literally something out there for every need (you may not be able to afford it, but it's there!) And it's not hard to show the ROI on a contracts management system when you can show a reduction in transaction times that leads to revenue faster, or a docketing system that allows you to renew important IP in a timely and cost efficient manner without hiring a specialist just to perform that duty.
5. Act like you belong there. New to in house and the first in house counsel will face a similar issue of not quite knowing where you fit in. Your title may put you at an exec level or a mid level manager. Your role puts you in at least a somewhat strategic position like it or not. So act like you belong at the table on day one. Don't be cocky - just try to learn at first. But you should make your rounds with every executive in the company. Introduce yourself and ask how you can make their jobs easier. Ask what time you should be there for that meeting, not whether you should come. And, it doesn't hurt to make the VP of Sales come to your office for the meeting once in awhile. Remember, you teach people how to treat you. Act like their peer and they'll treat you like that. Act subservient and you'll always be treated that way.