Top Ten Things I Know Now that I Wish I Knew Then
Aug 01, 2012 Top Ten Download PDF
By Bernadette M. Bulacan
When I was the hiring partner at my law firm, we established a robust on-boarding program to introduce our summer associates and first year attorneys to the private practice of law. Law school was great for teaching basic legal skills—research, writing, identifying issues—but it failed to teach practical lawyering skills beneficial to the new law firm associate. To overcome this shortcoming, the firm implemented a “Bridge the Gap” program that occurred throughout the summer and into the fall. Each new associate would dine with partners hailing from different practice groups. Each of these seasoned attorneys was charged with answering this one question: What do you know now about being a lawyer that you wish you knew then on Day 1? By answering this simple question, each partner imparted a meaningful pearl of wisdom on this new associate, making it more likely that this newly-minted attorney would be more efficient, effective and less likely to make “rookie” mistakes at the law firm.
But what about those who are new to the in-house practice? How do they bridge this new gap into a corporate legal department? Some counsel are fortunate to attend the ACC’s Corporate Counsel University, an annual three-day bootcamp for new in-house practitioners. But for the rest, it’s unlikely that a robust on-boarding program awaits them on Day 1 of their corporate counsel career. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from some useful and practical advice from seasoned in-house colleagues. For the benefit of those who are new to-in house, various general counsel corporate counsel answered this question: What do you know now about being an in-house attorney that you wish you knew then on Day 1 of your corporate counsel career? Here are the Top Ten pearls of wisdom shared:
1. Build credibility by understanding the business inside and out.How best to become an expert in the business? “Learn the business deeply through experiencing the product or service,” shares Michelle Banks, General Counsel of the Gap, who spent some time on the floor and in the back storage room folding shirts and clothing at Old Navy to truly understand her retail business. In a similar vein, Tanya Avila, associate general counsel of the e-commerce software company, Volusion, recommends understanding “how the technology works, who the players in the industry are and where your company fits in the ecosystem.” Not only will this give you credibility with your business partners, but the happier they will be to not only give you a seat at the table, but “actually listen when you have something to add to the conversation,” says Ms. Avila.
2. Know the players within the company.Not only is it important to understand the business, it is also critical to understand “how (and through whom) it makes decision,” advises Deirdre Stanley, General Counsel of Thomson Reuters. Over time, focus on a few select groups within the company and find time to meet with them to learn about what they do: marketing/sales, finance, new product development, strategy and finance, are top of mind. When meeting with any key players, learn how their work impacts the company and generates revenue. Consider finding a mentor from outside the legal department and understand how the company looks from their side of the house; this type of partnership will only increase your overall business-savvy.
3. Listen and don’t over-lawyer.The art of communication and the value of active listening is especially important for the new in-house practitioner. “Attend every meeting you are invited to at first,” recommends Ms. Banks, and “listen to, empathize with, and invest in relationships with your business partners.” Learning how to listen and convey your message with the appropriate tone and urgency is critical to working with business people. Warns Ms. Avila, “a brain dump of what you know isn’t impressive; it’s annoying and it may burden [your business partners] with knowledge they don’t need and don’t want. This isn’t law school; and no one wants a legal memo.”
4. Eliminate “no” from your vocabulary and replace it with “how-to.”Most business issues are neither black nor white, but rather shades of grey. “To be relevant,” cautions Susan Hackett, Chief Legal Officer and CEO of Legal Executive Leadership LLC, in-house counsel must “speak the language of grey.” But what does the ‘language of grey’ entail? The grey refers to the business risk every company faces. Legal risk is simply one of many types of risk a company faces, including the “risk of doing nothing,” says Ms. Stanley, adding, “So your job is not to say ‘no’—unless something is obviously illegal—but to describe ‘how-to’.” Accordingly, corporate counsel must develop an understanding of a company’s level of risk tolerance and chart a path forward. As Ms. Banks further advises, “Save ‘no’ for the rare occasion that there is no legal and ethical solution to get to yes.”
5. Leave your fear of numbers behind (Part 1- Data and Metrics).For many lawyers, law school was a safe haven from numbers and calculations. But for in-house counsel, it is important to collect data and key performance metrics to demonstrate your individual and department’s overall value to the business enterprise. Only by collecting data can improvement, efficiency and value be measured. What performance metrics might be meaningful to you and your department? Perhaps measuring cost-savings from better management of outside counsel or from the implementation of an alternative fee program? How about the turn-around time for certain serial contracts? Identify, collect and report on the key performance indicators that are meaningful to your CFO and CEO. Finally, consider technology resources and aggregated data that might help you compare your legal department’s performance to similarly situated companies, either by legal department size, company size by revenue, or industry.
6. Leave your fear of number behind (Part 2- Accounting).Remember that great accounting and microeconomic course in law school that prepared you for your in-house position? Probably not, if you are like most attorneys. However, a newly minted corporate counsel will quickly discover that both are intertwined in the in-house practice. In fact, at a recent Chief Legal Officer conference, many of the CLO panelists predicted that more general counsel will have MBAs and other business training. In order to better serve the business, pick up some basic accounting courses; understand how to read a balance sheet and understand Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Finally, ask your accounting team whether there are particular tax or accounting issues that should be considered in your legal advice.
7. Meet with outside counsel and elevate the relationship by introducing project management techniques.Transitioning from counsel to client can be challenging; and like many responsibilities in-house, law school doesn’t prepare you to manage outside counsel. In some cases, outside counsel will know more about the company and its legal affairs than you; accordingly, set up meetings with your outside counsel as soon as possible. Understand who is on your bench and the competencies and expertise of the different partners and associates doing work for you. Review any retention letters that may be in place, or establish your own retention agreement in the absence of one. Consider introducing project management techniques to the relationship: are you receiving early case assessment, budgets and periodic status reports? Is there an established means to evaluate outside counsel and the legal services provided and provide that feedback to the firm? How are invoices received and reviewed? Initially, corporate counsel may find it uncomfortable to talk about invoices with outside counsel, however this discomfort should never undermine in-house counsel’s responsibility to manage outside counsel and legal spend. Technology, like e-billing and matter management, can help you better collaborate with outside counsel.
8. Think that being in-house means a lighter load? Think again.The demands of the in-house practice cannot be underestimated. Your in-house business partners can be just as demanding as life at the law firm. Sure, the in-house practitioner does not have to worry about building a book of business or making partner, but they are not immune from late nights and clients under stress.
9. Check your ego and DIY (“Do It Yourself”).Going in-house requires you to change your mind-set from revenue generator to cost center. “Remember that you now work in an organization where lawyers don’t control the business,” commented Ms. Hackett. She further advises, “Leave your JD persona at the door each day and pull it forward only when you’re working on a legal issue. And remember that in business there are no legal issues—just business issues that require a lawyer as one of the people solving the problem.” Transitioning from a law firm to in-house poses other challenges, like the lack of support staff to help with administrative functions. In-house counsel can no longer push down administrative duties to support staff. They must instead master the company’s software and systems and learn processes themselves. Kelly Prettner, corporate counsel at Minnesota-based Educational Credit Management Corporation, suggested that corporate counsel must also be administrative ‘jack-of-all-trades’. Prettner shared, “One of our newest additions has commented that she has been embarrassed by asking who does things for her, when the answer is ‘you do it yourself.’”
10. Rely and maintain professional network.Have a question and need advice? At a law firm, all you needed to do was walk down the hall lined with colleagues and other lawyers. Not so in-house, especially if you are the lone general counsel in your company. The importance of maintaining your professional network is even more pronounced in-house. Join and participate in the local ACC chapter. Make sure to reach out to this network on a regular basis; they will be a treasure trove of practical advice, forms, and reassurances. And don’t forget to read the ACC Docket and other legal newsletters and blogs regularly.
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