Your primary role as an in-house lawyer is to help to control legal risk in the business at the levels that the business wants to achieve (not eliminate it). You’ll also play an important role in helping the organisation achieve its commercial objectives. Sometimes these two priorities may conflict and present you with a new challenge.
What to expect when you work in-house
As a general counsel, you’ll be the first port of call for any kind of legal issue, so it is important to be familiar with the laws and regulations that apply specifically to your sector and to maintain a good general understanding of the other laws that apply to business in general. You'll also need to be a business leader and a commercial manager with some financial acumen, human interaction and project skills
Naturally, you won’t be an expert in all areas of law, so you’ll need to know when to call in outside help. Your responsibility will then be to budget for external counsel and ensure they meet your timescales and provide the advice the business needs.
Get to know the business
Because your advice will relate to the law in the context of your organisation and its industry, getting to know it inside out is the single most important thing you can do. Familiarise yourself with its:
- Legal structure;
- Organisation structure;
- Operational areas;
- Business plan;
- Technical infrastructure;
- Major customers and suppliers and their main contacts;
- Key dates in the company calendar - both annually reoccurring ones (like the budget cycle) and one off project and service receipt/delivery dates.
Also learn about the competitive landscape in which your business operates.
Another important part of your role will be to coordinate communication between different departments. You’ll find that you have unique knowledge of different parts of the business, so can act as a useful link between them.
Manage budgets effectively
Remember that the in-house legal team is seen as a cost centre, not a profit centre. This completely changes the way colleagues regard you and how you’ll operate on a day-to-day basis. Instead of valuing you for the revenue you generate by way of billable hours, they’ll judge you on your contribution to risk reduction and the business’s ability to achieve its commercial goals.
This means that you'll need to change the way that you look at your work as you will have an inexhaustible work supply. You will need to prioritise your work effectively, focusing on the most important and urgent tasks, rather than doing everything. You will also need to manage the financial aspects of the in-house legal function. This will involve budgeting for your own internal costs and those of any external counsel you may need. Occasionally, you’ll need to present a business case if you want to secure additional resource.
You will be a manager at an early stage, so your colleagues will assume you’re a natural leader and decision-maker. Live up to their expectations by showing willing and taking the lead when appropriate. Then, if a crisis occurs in the business, you’ll be trusted to step forward.
Even if you have no direct reports, you may also be expected to lead projects, make decisions and source and manage external counsel.
Be prepared to work outside your comfort zone. Sometimes this will mean getting involved in matters beyond your job description but which still help reduce legal risk or help the organisation meet its targets. However be careful not to become the default owner of everything that does not have an obvious business owner.
Earn your colleagues' trust
Earning the trust of your commercial colleagues is vital. This doesn’t mean saying yes to every request, but instead delivering on promises and commitments, and keeping clients informed in good time if there’s a delay.
If you have to say no to something, make sure you provide an alternative option that achieves the same outcome, or as close as possible. Expect to be challenged regularly by clients. Be a trouble-shooter and a solutions expert, and stay firm with your advice.
Make the most of your resources
You will have to learn to operate effectively with minimum resources. Don’t expect the best IT systems or even any administrative support. Find a way to deal with what you have as there will be bigger issues to deal with. Make the most of readily available technology to work as effectively as possible and save time.
Obtaining information and data is likely to be a major challenge. Hopefully, there will be some standard precedents for key business agreements. If there’s an up-to-date contract database and matter management system, this will be a massive bonus.
You may need to be something of a detective and seek information out yourself. Ask questions all the time and be alert for the things people have forgotten to tell you, whether deliberate or not. Always challenge and test assumptions and deadlines.
You may not have all of the information you need to do your job, yet, ironically, you’ll face information overload. You’ll be copied in on far more emails than you can possibly imagine, so learn to filter and sift the information that comes to you. Although this process will take time, the better you understand your organisation, the easier your job will become. Use email filtering and filing apps to help you stay in control.
Adapt your communication style
You’ll probably need to adapt your communication style when moving to an in-house role from a law firm. For example, unless you’re preparing a formal report for a board meeting, your colleagues will not want lengthy, written communications. They’ll expect short and simple advice. And, as you’re all working towards the same end, they’ll expect you to come off the fence and tell them which course of action is best.
Getting your clients to make a decision when they have limited time can be a major challenge. Using easy-to-digest formats such as tables, RAG (red, amber, green) reports and slide decks will help considerably.
Make meetings count
Be prepared to spend a large proportion of your time in meetings and on conference calls.
With so many meetings, you may wonder how you’ll get your work done, but don’t worry as after a few weeks, you’ll learn how to manage your time. In the early days, it will be useful to attend as many as meetings as possible as this will allow you to learn about the business and get to know your new colleagues.
You'll probably get most of your instructions at meetings, so take the opportunity to ask questions. Never feel you’re asking too many! It’s better to do this early on rather than cause delay later and in most cases, you’ll be asking the questions that many others in the meeting wanted to ask.
You will often be put on the spot in front of senior management during meetings, so learn to anticipate and plan accordingly.
Learning to prioritise is essential or you’ll soon be overwhelmed. Take your lead from the organisation’s key objectives and main areas of legal risk. Accept that priorities may change possibly on a daily basis. Getting to know the business(and its people) and developing your financial awareness will help you gauge where the greatest risks are and enable you to use your time effectively.
While you’ll want to provide the best possible service, be wary of seeking perfection. Nobody will thank you for creating the perfect agreement if the organisation loses the deal because you missed the deadline while doing so.
Keep processes under review, be prepared to challenge any that no longer work and be flexible. Where no processes currently exist, consider what you can do to increase efficiency and reduce legal risk.
Prioritise things that will bring long-term benefits, such as new precedent developments or key legal updates.Your duty is to manage the key legal risks as best you can with the resources at your disposal and be ready to deal with the crises when they happen. This is the in-house legal challenge and it's very satisfying when you get it right and can see the benefits that result!
Though the working hours may be less punishing than in a law firm, the pressure on in-house lawyers is no less real, just different. You will need to approach the role with new expectations, learn to adapt your approach, to focus on being Strategic, Effective and Efficient; to be a good prioritiser with great inter-personal skills; and to develop commercial and financial awareness in order to stay relevant. If you do this, you should find that working in-house is an extremely interesting and rewarding career!