Monday, March 21, 2016

Top 5 Must Do's for the New to In House Lawyer

I've written about what I wished I learned in law school to make me a better business partner (What I wish I learned in law school); what outside counsel should do to win/keep my business (10 Commandments); and what the first in house lawyer should do to set up a successful department (Top 5 Must Do's For the First In House Counsel).  Lately I've been asked a lot about what the transitioning lawyer should think about.  How do you make the move from firm to in house?  And once there, what do you need to do to be successful?  So here's my Top 5 for the New to In House Lawyer.

1. Drop the ego at the door. One of the first pieces of advice given to attorneys making the jump from firm to corporate america is to remember that you are going from a profit maker to a cost center.  It seems common sense, but you wouldn't believe how many people fail to realize what this looks like in reality.  No, you most likely won't have your own admin/secretary.  If you're lucky you can share one with the department, but no she won't make your lunch plans or type up that letter for you.  She has her own job and it has very little to do with you.  And when it comes time for bonus, stock options, etc., unless you're the GC, don't expect that you'll be valued very high in the hierarchy of the company.  Sales people and the developers making the company's best selling products come before you.  Don't get jealous - if they do their jobs well it means more money for everyone.  Your job now is to support them.  Help the company figure out how to make money.  In the end everyone wins, but your contribution won't be publicly recognized very often.

2. Get to know your company and industry. As a firm lawyer, you have many clients.  You may specialize in a particular area of law and/or industry.  But you will quickly learn that you know very little about how the company actually runs.  You need to know not just the easily researched facts, but the specifics and nuances that come to play in your particular industry. Some industries have a frenemy approach to competition.  Friendly when needed, but always watching the other guy.  Others can be outright hostile, the competition is evil.  Know which one you're in.  Get to know how your company operates within the ecosystem.  You should know how the product works; what the customer sees when interacting with your company; and most of all where the money comes from.  Without this, you'll never understand the big picture strategy.

3. Be prepared to show your worth. Hourly billing may be over but tracking isn't. More and more legal teams are being asked to justify the cost.  Executive teams and boards love metrics - dollars saved in outside spending, number of contracts reviewed monthly, average turn around times, reduction in claims filed, etc. It's a simple enough concept, and makes total sense.  When you can show the people with the purse strings how hard your team is working they're more likely to give up a little extra at bonus time or allow a new hire even when things are tight.  However, it also means that all members of the team need to track things.  Sometimes, technology makes this easy.  Contract management software will help with some of those stats.  But other things just have to be tracked and communicated the old fashioned way.  It sucks to track time spent on a project, but without it there isn't an easy way to justify that new technology or new hire that would ease the load.

4. Join ACC or a similar in house community. Congratulations. You no longer have to generate business like the old days.  And because of that, it becomes very easy to keep your head down, get the job done and then go home to the family.  It's easy to get isolated from the legal community.  But you do so at your own risk.  First, you no longer have a firm full of specialist at your fingers that you can ask a quick question to see if you're on the right track. It's harder to find a mentor who will advise you when the VP of Marketing starts being unreasonable. And when a few years down the line you need to find a new job, you have no idea where to start.  An in house community will provide an easy way to network with other people just like you, usually at reasonable times that don't impact too much on that precious work-life balance that you left the firm for.  Most, like ACC, will also offer online resources that give you a quick reference for that odd problem that everyone faces once, but only once.  And when it's time to start looking for a new job, you'll be amazed at how supportive they'll be sending you opportunities and making introductions to hiring GCs/CFOs/CEOs for positions that will never be posted.

5. Learn to embrace risk. Every company has its own risk profile.  When you're outside looking in you tend to provide a full laundry list of potential risk to the client and let them figure out what matters.  After all, you're the lawyer not the business decision maker.  And then you move in house and you find that the business decision maker wants a yes or no and very rarely has time for a long explanation of the answer.  So you'll have to learn the risk appetite of your company and it's particular managers.  You'll have to learn how to read the decision maker to know if they're looking for a yes or a no to the question posed.  You'll have to learn how to be okay with the fact that not everything will be passed through legal before it goes to market.  And you'll have to do all this while still keeping as bright a line as you can between you the lawyer and business decisions being made.  It's something we all struggle with, even after years of being in house.  So good luck. And welcome to the in house community.