Monday, October 29, 2012

Take Control

As a follow up to last week's post about bringing courage into your career, I want to take a moment to promote another aspect of successful business people that lawyers can learn from - taking control.  One of the most successful business people I've ever met, Bob Parsons, has an air about him.  It's an air of authority.  A larger than life personality that fills the room even before he enters it.  A big part of that is how he takes control of every moment of his life.  It's a trait that a lot of entrepreneurs have - don't like your 9 to 5, quit and take control of your own financial future.

Now, we can't all be entrepreneurs for macroeconomic and microeconomic reasons.  Lawyers on a whole would make horrible entrepreneurs precisely because we have a hard time taking risks.  As counterintuitive as it sounds, taking control over your career is also taking the biggest risk one can make professionally.  It's no secret that I am the breadwinner in my family with three children depending on me, one of which requires extensive and expensive therapies.  So taking control of my career, and the risk that making a mistake may cost that stability is the scariest thing on earth to me.

But that doesn't mean that I, or you, should let our fears run our careers.  You're much more likely to gain the respect of your peers and your management team if you bring a little of that entrepreneurial spirit to your practice.  Take some risks occasionally  not just risks to the business by letting that indemnity clause go, but risks to you by speaking out against a bad business idea or setting boundaries to when and what you will do.  Control your career by branching out in speaking engagements, or social media.  Garner a name for yourself independent of your employer to make yourself a commodity worth keeping.  Understand your worth and offer proof of it to your employer on a regular basis - not just at review time.  Keep your options open.  In the corporate world today, loyalty is only so valuable.  You need to keep honing your skills and keep an eye on the job market.  Know what it's doing at all times and know how easily or how difficult it will be for you to find your next opportunity.  Don't be at the mercy of a bad boss, or a bad business plan.

Take control of your career in the way that serial CEOs do.  Like them, you'll find that once you control yourself, you'll start to emit an air of authority that creates a respect before you even enter the room.  With that, you can better control the rest of your world, all while still receiving a paycheck from someone else.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Be Brave

Yesterday I spent the day surrounded by professional women at the Texas Professional Women's Conference.  It was my first year attending, but it definitely won't be my last.  I was very inspired by the success stories of the entrepreneurs and business women and the eagerness of everyone to help out the next generation of women to surpass their success.  The conference was definitely geared towards the entrepreneurial spirit, but the lessons it had to offered can be easily translated into practice tips for in house women lawyers.  I know I've got several post ideas out of the different sessions I attended, stay tuned for what is sure to be a deluge of entrepreneurial lessons to apply to in house practice.

The general theme that carried the day was one of courage.  Over and over again the panelists and presenters encouraged the audience of almost 5000 to be brave.  Take ownership of what you want and be willing to do what's necessary to get there.  Don't be afraid to ask for help or take risks - including the risk of absolute failure.

Very often we, as women and as lawyers, are so personally risk averse that we hedge our bets.  We fail to commit fully.  We frame our answers to the hard questions with weasel words like "it depends" or "I think".   It holds back our ability to gain full trust from those we are advising and our ability to move ahead in our careers. We sabotage our ability to be the best we can be because we are afraid of appearing weak by asking for help, or worse incompetent by having the wrong answer.  Combine that with the real fear of committing malpractice by offering reckless advice, and we've stuck ourselves in the back seat of our companies and our lives.

Business men don't typically have the same fears.  They tend to take on the challenges not knowing if they are capable of doing it, giving themselves the opportunity to rise above their experience.  The most successful will confidently forge ahead even when the worst case scenario is complete failure.  They don't do it recklessly, instead they surround themselves with mentors and experts to advise and guide them to the right path.  If going down a path completely uncharted they acknowledge the chance of failure and move on anyway.  They understand instinctually that you can't be a star by sitting in the audience, only by entering the arena can you shine.

As they say with most recovery programs, the first step is admitting there's a problem.  Look at your professional interactions.  Are you always sitting in the back, or at the table?  Do you naturally fill the service roll - getting coffee, taking notes, administering the meeting rather than participating in it?  Does your advice contain weasel words?  Does your voice rise when talking to your executives making you sound unsure of yourself?  If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, make a conscious effort to take risk.

Begin by arriving to your next meeting slightly early and grabbing a seat at the table instead of the periphery   Make a point to comment on the business and not just the legal.  Just one comment, it doesn't have to be controversial or even memorable at first.  Just start to participate.  When asked for your advice, don't hesitate, don't weasel or hedge the answer.  Be confident and firm in your delivery.  If you don't know the answer, tell them you'll find out and let them know in an hour.  Then do it.  If it's an uncertain area of law/business, tell them it's not fully played out yet but you'd bet that it will turn out like xyz.  Put yourself out there and know that it may result in you being brilliantly wrong.  It will be hard at first, but once you begin to believe in yourself, so will others.  Only then will you have the opportunity to shine.

My early New Year's resolution is to be brave.  I'll keep you posted on the progress I make.  For today, I'm going to make a conscious effort to eliminate the weasel words.  How will you start being brave?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Got business?

One of the best things about being in house is the fact that you don't have to generate business.  I can only empathize with my firm colleagues on how stressful it is to have to be "salesman" on top of attorney.  That said, please stop hitting me up for business the first time we meet.  When the second thing out of your mouth (after, what company are you with) is what are your legal needs, I immediately turn off and will almost as quickly forget you.  If you truly want my business here's a few things you should know about how I, and many of my in house brethren, award business.

Small matters go to people we know and like.  Generally a specialist in the area.  I don't typically hire firms, I hire attorneys.  And usually, I'm hiring the associate who will do the actual work and not the partner who manages the account.  If you want to get the small matters that we don't do in house then you'll want to have your associates spend a little time networking with in house attorneys.  Giving CLE's is a good way to get some face time with in house folks and become somewhat connected with an area of expertise without having to oversell it.

If I don't know someone who specializes in the area I need, I ask my in house friends for references.  You'd be surprised at the information we share when it comes to representation.  Who does quality work efficiently, who over bills, who wastes time, who is pleasant to work with and who is a pain in the ass, etc.  Make a good impression and we'll go out of our way to promote you.  Make a bad impression and we'll go out of our way to warn others about you.  Make no impression and, well, you're on your own.

For big matters, those multi-million dollar lawsuits or bet the business transactions, I typically put it out to bid.  I won't lie, cost is a factor.  But value is a bigger factor.  Having the right expertise and the right "fit" for the matter and our company culture will give you bonus points and may outweigh a savings from a competitor firm.  If I like you, you'll be on my list of firms that I invite to bid.  But you won't be alone on the list.  This is business and I have a responsibility to my company to get the best value possible.  Know that we evaluate everything, from your initial response to your presentation.

You will most likely be competing with at least 10 other firms of varying size and focus.  I typically include boutiques as well as big and small general practice firms in a RFP. In the initial response you will need to put your best foot forward and explain why I need you and your firm instead of a more specialized group.  If you make the first cut, I'll invite you (and at least 2 of your competitors) to meet with the business stakeholders   In this phase, you've already sold me that you have the basic legal expertise needed.  Now I'm looking for the "fit" with the stakeholders and the right staffing.  Again, I generally will take a hard look at the associate you present because I know they'll be doing the lion's share of the work.

My business stakeholders are going to be comparing you in the most general terms to the other lawyers.  You're not going to sell them on how you know this specific area of law better than the other guys.  So don't try.  Sell them on how you can handle this particular matter better than the other guys.  Whether that's because you have experience with the judge, the opposing counsel, the subject matter, etc.  Give them something to differentiate you from the other guys.  Give them a taste of what they can expect if we hire you, some out of the box thinking on the matter at hand, something, anything.  If you come with a presentation about how great your firm is and how well you know about xyz law with the same basic formula that any lawyer with a bit of experience is going to pitch, you'll lose.  Go above and beyond, spend a little bit of time.  After all, you may not win this matter but if you make an impression you'll be remembered for the next, and I might even recommend you to a friend.

Monday, October 15, 2012

What to be for Halloween?

Every year my company does a Halloween costume contest in which I am 'highly encouraged' to participate (the joys of working for a tech company).  My first year I dressed up as a pregnant nun which was hilarious because I was in fact pregnant and it was my 3rd day at work as the company's first lawyer.  It helped set the tone for how my relationship would go with the company.  Now I've got to top that in some creative way and I'm drawing a blank.  So dear readers I'm sending out a plea for help.  Have a work appropriate suggestion?  Leave it in the comments or email me

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I'm always looking for ways to improve - as a wife, a mother, a lawyer and even as a blogger.  In this last endeavor, one way I look for improvement is to see how people find me.  It's a very interesting and sometimes humorous exercise to go through the keywords that lead people to the blog.  Many times, its from a question.  So in hopes of helping these lost souls, I thought I'd address some of the keyword searches that lead people to this blog.

1.  Do you really need a social media policy?
        Yes.  If you have employees and they have access to technology then you need a social media policy.  See the original post here.

2.  How to get an in house counsel job without connections?
    Network, network, network.  You can keep current on the posted openings and get to know recruiters who work in the industry.  But the fact remains that the majority of in house jobs are filled through networking.  Need advice on networking, check out these posts: Networking Part 1; Networking part 2.

3.  Managing outside counsel...
    Managing outside counsel can be challenging, frustrating and at times hugely rewarding.  You must walk the line between looking out for the business side of things (i.e. staying on budget, managing expectations, etc.) and being an effective advocate for your client.  Often these objectives are at odds with each other and your outside counsel will almost always come down on the advocacy side regardless of the cost.  You have to actively manage them to ensure that you get the value your company needs.  At the same time, I have learned so much from outside counsel.  I usually only hire counsel for matters that I am not qualified to handle in house.  As a result, in the course of the representation I learn a lot about new areas of law and procedure.  For a more in depth view on managing counsel, go back to this July post.

4.  Can practicing law be fun?
  Absolutely.  And it can be miserable too.  Totally depends on your personality, and your employer.  Some lawyers are the firm type and would hate being in house.  Others, like me, are definitely in house lawyers from birth and would hate doing anything else.  I've found that a large part of the 'fun' in practicing comes from working for an employer in an industry that I find 'fun'.  It makes the tedium of reviewing yet another service agreement a little less boring.  I love start up(ish) tech companies.  For ten reasons why, check out this very popular post.

5.  He have to promote diversity (sic)
  I'm not sure where this reader was coming from, but the short answer is, "No, he doesn't".  There's a difference between being discriminatory and promoting diversity.  While I fully advocate promoting diversity (see posts here, here and here), it's a should do not a must do.

6.  How should inhouse solicitor sign off a letter?
  Simply, and with your title.  I typically sign off with Best Regards, Tanya Avila, Associate General Counsel.

7.  I went to the house of the jackass and I learn...
  I'd love to know the follow up to what this person learned.  I've learned quite a bit from jackasses over the years.  One of this blog's most popular posts is dedicated to that concept.  It's also my personal motto that I have made a mission to impart to my sons (and as many other people who will listen to me...)

8.  In house boring lawyer
  Guilty as charged.  In house lawyers are typically boring to non-in house lawyers.  It's not completely our fault.  We work long hours for a single client and professional ethics and rules prohibit us from being able to talk openly about much of it.  So, as a result we make very boring dinner guests.

9.  In house vacation time
  I assume this reader was looking for a range of what kind of vacation an in house lawyer can expect.  Unfortunately, you won't find this on the internet.  The main reason is that it varies from company to company.  For the most part, you get the same vacation allotment that everyone else in the company gets.  So if the company policy is 2 weeks, you get 2 weeks annually.  Other companies have more generous policies of 4 weeks.  A few have even moved to an unlimited PTO model that doesn't cap time off so long as productivity levels remain at desired output.  Although the average is probably 3 weeks of vacation with 1 week of sick time, the only way to know for sure is to find out what the company you're thinking of joining offers.  Not that it matters much.  Most in house lawyers I know don't use all their vacation allotment regardless of the time granted.  For a quick look into why, check out this post from a few weeks ago.

10.  In house counsel dealing with difficult business people
  I wish I had a single post I could link to with a quick answer for this one.  The fact of the matter is that there are a million different ways of dealing with difficult business people - primarily because there are a million different ways that business people can be difficult.  The best general advice I can offer is to remember that the main goal for everyone should be the best interest of the company.  Try to find that common ground and you'll more likely to gain their trust.  Once trusted, it's more likely that their "difficultness" will be directed to others.  I've found that most often difficult business people are driven by internal politics and not a direct malice.  Treating them with respect will go a long way.

Have any advice that differs from mine?  Feel free to leave it in the comments.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


I've been practicing for a while now and I have come to know two things with certainty.  One, I am really good at my job.  Time and again, my instincts prove true.  Even when I lacked the communication skills to persuade my business partners to take me seriously, events usually played out like I thought they would.  This makes me very good at my job, as I'm able to quickly ascertain what the risks are and know what we should do to mitigate or respond.  Being able to respond quickly and within the tolerances of the company saves us time and money.  Something every business person respects.  Knowing this also gives me confidence when communicating to my peers and management team.  The skill set and institutional knowledge I have gained over my years of in house practice have made me very valuable to my employer.

The second thing I know with absolute certainty is that I could be replaced in a heartbeat.  No matter how good I am at my job, there's always going to be someone who is better.  Or someone who has the capacity to learn and will do it for cheaper.  If the internal politics or overall business strategy dictates that instead of a corporate generalists we need a specialist to serve the business better, then I'm replaceable.  In house lawyers are subject to economic forces to a greater extent than firm lawyers.  We're a cost center and when the company is feeling pain, it has to reduce costs.  If a less experienced lawyer shows aptitude to pick up on the same skills that I have, but will do it at 2/3rds the pay, I'm replaceable.  If we hire a new CFO who doesn't like the color of my hair, then I'm replaceable.  (For those wondering - it's red for now, although not a true ginger so I think I still have a soul, but some people just don't like redheads...)

What it means for me, and for anyone else in my position, is that I have to constantly prove my worth.  I have to make the value I add to the organization known in a way that highlights my unique value as well as the value of the law department generally.  And I have to do this in a humble way so as not to be seen as a diva demanding kudos at every turn.  Add to the complexity that you're usually proving the negative (we saved millions by not doing that because we weren't sued/fined/etc, without having proof that you would have been sued/fined/etc had you acted differently), and you're usually proving value to people who have no clue what you do day to day.

One way to do this is to make sure that you (and your work) has visibility within the organization.  Present metrics to your management team about what you're doing.  Quantify and qualify the work that you're doing. e.g. I review an average of 20 contracts a month, with an average turnaround time of 2 days. While you don't add it to the graph, make sure they know that it used to take the outside counsel 2-3 weeks to get a single contract turned around for a much higher cost than in house.  Tie preventative measures to cost savings. e.g. Since we've incorporated management training regarding employment law basics, we've seen a decrease of 10% in the number of employment based claims/threats.  By putting the value of the legal team into the same format that they use to judge the value of the ops team or the marketing team, you'll begin to illustrate the value of legal generally.

The harder part is illustrating the value of you personally.  Why you over the new guy who's cheaper or the other guy who's done nothing but litigation in his career?  For corporate generalists like me, prepare your charts in a way that incorporates on a single page the wide variety of things you're able to manage internally without outside costs.  Work the internal politics and make sure you've got advocates from each group that you support.  Give them what they need before they need it and you'll be seen as invaluable.  If your IT manager knows that she doesn't have to train you on how the technology works every time a new IT contract comes up, and your HR manager knows that he can count on you to know the answer to that FMLA question immediately, they'll go to bat for you if discussion of replacing you comes around.  And while I hate to say it, not all teams are created equal in the corporate world.  Within your organization you will have a hierarchy of whose opinion matters most.  It may be HR or Finance, it may be Sales.  Whoever it is, make them  a priority.  And for those whose opinions are considered but not always solicited, give them the best service you can but don't kill yourself trying to prioritize everyone.  As much as it pains me to admit it, the third thing I have learned with absolute certainty is that in the corporate world, politics matters as much if not more than how good you are at your job.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Time Off

Lawyers are typically very driven people.  We compete with each other over who works the hardest.  We measure our worth by the number of productive hours we put in each year.  So when it comes to taking time off, we are reluctant participants to say the least.  We say we go in house for the "balance", but anyone who has spent any time in house knows that's a myth.  You trade billable hours for quarter and year end.  You work just as much, you just don't get the same recognition for it - which generally makes us work more.  We just get a bit more control over our schedules so we can make it to soccer practice or choir concerts and still get the job done.

In house lawyers are constantly proving their value to the company.  It's not easy being a cost center.  So we become paranoid about perceptions.  And let's be clear, the perception of not working hard or being "under assigned" can undermine your entire standing within the organization.  In house lawyers are typically among the highest paid employees at a company.  The people working with you have to think that you're earning that privilege or they'll make life very difficult for you.  Combine the need to control perceptions with a lawyers natural proclivity towards grinding out work and you can go years without truly having a day off.

Don't get me wrong, we go on 'vacations' and take 'sick days'.  Those days we only work a couple of hours.  We may not do more than answer emails on the weekends.  But we rarely turn it all off completely.  I worked in the recovery room after having 2 of my kids.  As soon as the drugs wore off enough I was on my smart phone answering emails and setting up meetings.  No one asked me to.  No one really expected me to, but I did because that what lawyers do.

Last week I got sick with strep throat (for the second time in a month!), and my first thought wasn't about getting better - it was about how much work I have on my desk.  So, I fired off an email to my boss and let him know I was going to work from home to spare the office my germs.  His response was no.  Don't work, take a sick day.  Focus on getting better.  I'll be honest, at first I was annoyed.  I have too much work to do to ignore it until Monday.  We've talked about how behind I am on certain things.  So, why would he even suggest that I take a day off?  Then my husband reminded me that I'm just a lawyer.  A corporate one at that.  No one will die if I let those contracts sit until Monday.  No one will go to jail and the company won't lose millions of dollars.  No one will really miss me if I take just one day off.  He's right, they both are.  I needed to actually rest and let my body heal itself.  I needed to take the day completely off.  So I reluctantly agreed.  (And I only answered a few emails so it almost does count as a day completely off.)

With the holidays coming up, we need to remind ourselves that we're really not that important.  And even if we are, no one blames us for taking some time off to achieve that "balance" that everyone talks about.  So plan it now, make sure you've covered your bases and then take a real vacation.  Maybe even go somewhere that your smart phone won't work.  You'll come back refreshed and with enough energy to tackle those projects that you're months behind on.