The journey of the in-house counsel begins from habits formed in your early professional career. There is no sudden epiphany where lightning strikes you and you transform into a competent and focused professional. It is the arduous and repetitive process of doing the everyday tasks in an exceptional way without fail. Nothing should ever be “good enough” or handled in a dismissive way. Each interaction, each opportunity and each performance (yes, we are performers) adds another drop of water into the bucket of your career story.
The journey to the top isn’t always smooth or direct, as a matter of fact it is just the opposite. So, what qualities do some novice counsel have that allow them to rise to General Counsel roles? That situation can grow from the intersection of skills, opportunity and luck. Here are a few practical tips that in-house counsel might find helpful in their continuing professional journey:
1) Know What Drives Your Company to Succeed- In-house counsel must understand what motivates your business to succeed, not only internally, but externally as well. Spend time learning about your company’s culture and history. Attend staff meetings of other departments so you know what their day-to-day challenges are. Try to work “in” the business. For example, if your company deals with public works and energy, spending time reading meters, going to facility appointments and understanding maintenance requests will give you an appreciation of the day to day business and help your credibility and visibility within the company. Read several sources every week about your industry. Ask your executives what they read to keep abreast of industry developments and trends. Understand how the business works, why it succeeds and what are its challenges.
2) Display Business Acumen and Executive Judgement. When you are in a meeting with company personnel everyone in the room knows you are in-house counsel. Your job is to help the executives solve a problem or achieve a result. It is not the time to use legal terminology. Help your company by identifying alternative ways to achieve their goals. The way to change “no” to “yes” is by educating someone so as to transform a “no” to “know”. Understand the costs and Return on Investment of your recommendations. Remember the company is not in the business of litigating; it is in the business of providing the goods and services to its customers and in providing a reasonable return to its investors.
3) Be Modest and Conscious of Corporate Politics. Your job is to make those around you heroes for getting their tasks accomplished and having you involved. The credit for success should be shared generously and equally among a team so that the same formula is applied when there is failure. Your professional success will grow exponentially when you highlight the good work of others and they will continue to want you involved. Do not gossip; find ways to shut down rumors and make sure whatever you say to someone in confidence is something that you would not be embarrassed to be attributed to you publicly.
4) There is no right way to do the wrong thing. In-house counsel are now getting greater visibility in companies and have a seat at the table. You are the guardian of your business at the same time you are a business partner, but you are an attorney first. It is ok to love the business, but you were hired to live the law. It takes a lot of strength to not join the majority or compete with popular intentions with other executives. It can be difficult being the lone dissenting voice on an idea that appears to positively impact revenue and profitability that may be illegal or unethical. Calmly respond to the proposal and explain in clear and unambiguous business and legal terms the reason the suggested approach is not preferred. Carefully communicate and document your concerns to appropriate people. If they ignore you, consider alternative methods to raise the issue. If necessary (although at an extreme) hire your own counsel and be prepared to resign. Your professional reputation and ethics must never be compromised at any time for any reason.
5) If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Simply stated, hire the best team you can find. Do not be afraid of someone knowing more than you. Generously delegate work. It is ok to not know an answer to a question or that you do not understand the issue, as long as you get the answer promptly. Pay well and play well with your team. Give them a competitive wage on the higher end of the average and take time to build and be a team. Regularly acknowledge their expertise, contributions and value. Every day might not be fun but everyday should be meaningful in their career development. Require annual performance objectives that are real and meaningful for professional and personal development. Hold them and yourself accountable for progress and achievement. Identify your likely replacement and test their skills.
6) Bloom where you are planted. We sometimes get so obsessed with our career advancement we forget about the good fortune we have with our current jobs. Instead of looking for the next opportunity, embrace your current opportunity and be the best there ever was at it. Stay positive and control the things you can control. Try to be at peace with the things beyond your power. You can always choose your attitude and the way you handle adversity. Always respond and don’t react. Recognize that the best days of your career have not happened yet. Your success will be rewarded, but not always in the timeframe we set.
7) Become an ambassador of your business. We are a part of a greater whole when we join a Legal Department. The business or company has several coordinating parts from law, accounting, sales, marketing, etc. You are defined as a member of that team and must do everything you can to help the business succeed. It’s true that in-house counsel are hired to do legal work, but be aware of other opportunities within your business. Get involved in a nonprofit and hear what others are doing who might need your company’s services. When you attend a conference ask about the companies that other attendees work for and be prepared to suggest an introduction for mutual corporate benefit. It doesn’t take much effort to further these relationships and it is amazing when there is a match.
8) Always Look Forward and Don’t Dwell on the Past. Too often we spend an inordinate amount of time Monday morning dissecting things that could have gone better. It is okay to do a post-event assessment, but you can’t change your past actions. Learn from the past, but do not dwell on it. Admit your failures and figure out how they will not be repeated. The challenges we faced yesterday will make us stronger and better prepared for the future. Be honest with yourself about your performance and do not be quick to blame others.
9) Treat your Vendors with respect. Your vendors will call you, email you, invite you to events and are ever-present in your professional life. Sometimes, you’ll feel too busy to talk to them and ignore their outreach. But be weary of that reaction; your vendors may have an offering for you that will enhance your practice and drive your team to greater success. Take the time to listen to what they have to say. Allocate time each month to have a discussion on new technology, solutions, etc. While there is oftentimes a cost of buying a new solution, the cost of not buying it may be higher.
10) Leaving can be hard, but you don’t have to make it difficult. The attitude of staying with one employer for an entire career has faded. In-house counsel are recruited, often network for our next opportunity and sometimes we lose our job because of restructuring. When you leave, do it the right way. You learn more about a person on their way out of a job, than you ever knew during work days together. Do not leave with negative comments to fellow teammates and always take the high road. Make sure transition items are in place and that there are no surprises lurking. You are a professional and should always act appropriately.
I hope these few suggestions will help you with your career and personal growth. Remember your career advancement is a process and not an event and everything you do is interrelated and connected.
By Rich Cohen, President and General Counsel of Corporate Creations