Ten things: taking advantage of opportunities to build your in-house career

Originally published September 2021 - https://sterlingmiller2014.wordpress.com/2021/09/30/ten-things-taking-advantage-of-opportunities-to-build-your-in-house-career/

Sterling Miller

Sterling Miller on 18/10/21

Last month, my good friend, Jane McBride, and I presented a CLE to the Texas Bar in-house counsel section on how to “take advantage of opportunity.”  

I, of course, had my list of ten things and Jane (as an in-house lawyer and ace career coach) brought her usual great ideas to the table as well.  The mixture of our ideas was a killer combination and made for an excellent presentation.  But, in the back of my mind, I kept coming back to my original list of ten and thinking that list would make a good “Ten Things” blog.  Not because there was anything wrong with the combined list, but because my original ten told the story of how I was able to advance my career as an in-house lawyer –  from that first day on the job at American Airlines to my last day as general counsel of Marketo (my third time in the general counsel chair).  My own personal experience is generally what I like to share with you in this blog.  While this post is aimed at those new to or a few years into the in-house counsel life, I think most of the lessons below apply to pretty much anyone at any point in their in-house career.  So, let’s get started.  

This edition of “Ten Things” discusses how in-house lawyers can best take advantage of opportunities to advance their career:

1.  What kind of career do you want? 

The first step is to simply figure how what type of career interests you the most.  When you know that, you can start to filter or line up opportunities to best help you achieve that goal. For me, I knew I wanted to be general counsel from the first day I stepped into an in-house legal department. Everything I did in terms of taking advantage of opportunities had that aim top of mind.  But, being general counsel isn’t for everyone.  Some of you may want to be a subject matter expert.  Some of you want to be a deputy general counsel and run a group, but not have to deal with everything that comes with being “the Big Boss.”  Others want to be generalists or simply have the opportunity to do good legal work but not have a lot of administrative responsibility.  Whatever you decide is fine.  There is no right or wrong answer.  The best part is that you can always change your mind, i.e., you are not stuck on any particular career path forever.  And, whatever path you choose, you will come across plenty of opportunities to help reach your goal.

2.  Enhance your soft skills. 

You certainly want to become a top-flight lawyer as your career advances.  But, that is just a ticket to the circus.  The only people who can truly measure your abilities as a lawyer will be other lawyers.  For an in-house lawyer, the equally (if not more) important part of the equation is developing soft skills, as everyone in the company can evaluate you on your soft skills.  Whether and how far you advance will hinge greatly on those evaluations (formal and informal).  Here are some soft skills I think are critical for in-house lawyers:

There are, of course, more.  For example, saying “thank you,” introducing yourself, and recognizing the contributions of others are important as well.  Taking advantage of every opportunity to practice and hone your soft skills will be a huge contributor to your success as an in-house lawyer.  You can find a lot on this topic with a simple internet search or if you are interested in going even deeper, check out Kim Tasso’s Essential Soft Skills for Lawyers: What They Are and How to Develop Them.

3.  Learn the business.   

If I had my own flag, “Learn the Business” might be the motto stitched across the bottom. If you are a regular reader of the blog, or if you have heard me speak, you know this topic comes up a lot.  That’s how critical it is to be a successful in-house lawyer.  It is impossible to do a good job with legal issues, strategic thinking, or being a partner to the business if you do not understand how the business you support actually works.  Here is a simple test.  Would you bet $1 million right now that you know the answers to these four questions:

  • How does the company make money?
  • Who are the company’s key customers, vendors, and competitors?
  • What are the company’s products and services (and how do they work)?
  • What are the company’s strategy and objectives for the short term and the long term?

If you know the answers, great.  If not, you have some work to do (and you owe me $1 million). Additionally, you must have an understanding of basic finance.  Sadly, there is math involved with being an in-house lawyer (no matter what they told me otherwise in law school). You do not need an MBA, but you need to know, among other things, how to read a balance sheet, cash flow statement, and income statement (P&L).  Check out my post on basic finance for in-house lawyers for more.  Helpfully, most companies make information about the “Big Four” questions readily available to most employees, and especially for their lawyers (you can even ask for a demo of the company’s products and services). Likewise, companies often provide training on basic finance and other business skills.  Your job?  Take advantage of the information made available to you and the opportunities to learn about the business.

4.  Find ways to “Yes.” 

Another skill to hone as you advance in your career is finding ways to “yes.”  It is easy to say “no” and many in-house lawyers specialize in doing so, i.e., if they don’t like something or don’t think it’s the right path forward they simply shut down and say “No, you can’t do that.”  That may work every once in a while but it will not work over the long term.  Being branded as “Dr. No” by the business is as close to a career killer as I can come up with.  This means you need to take advantage of all your skills and creativity to find a way to “yes.”  In my experience, the answer is rarely a stone-cold, absolute “no.”  In fact, the only times it should be “no” is when something proposed is criminal or someone could get seriously hurt or killed.  Other than that, it comes down to the risk profile of the business and ensuring that the right people are signing off on the risk (both of which you should know). Legal does not run the business.  Our job is to advise and guide and if the business wants to take the risk and the right people are on board, then we move forward doing the best job we can.  In-house lawyers tend to be too conservative and that results in missed opportunities for the business.  Still, your “yes” may not be exactly what the business asked for but if it gets to the same end result (or close enough) and better protects the company, then you are doing your job correctly.  Similarly, when you advise the business, be practical in your advice and solutions.  Consider whether what you are proposing will work in the world your company operates.  If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.   Look for opportunities to say “yes” and to be practical with your advice.  Common sense is your best friend here.  The business will value and keep coming back to lawyers who “make sense” and are not off in an ivory tower.

5.  Volunteer. 

Every legal department I have been part of (four) has special projects going on.  It may be a big tech implementation, it may be strategic planning or goal setting, or it may be working on the intranet website.  Whatever it is, these are golden opportunities to show your value to the general counsel and your colleagues in the department.  Raise your hand and volunteer to help.  Volunteering is a fantastic way to demonstrate (and develop) leadership skills, along with other soft skills noted above.  It gives the leaders of the department a chance to see you in action and, likely, in a different light.  The same applies outside of the legal department. Most companies have large, intra-department projects going on all the time.  These are all opportunities to take advantage of.  Try to get assigned to one of these special projects, especially if it involves something high profile like new markets, the future direction of the company, strategic planning, and so forth.  These are all opportunities to show off your value and skills to a wider audience, including the senior management of the company.  I’ll put it this way, it is difficult to become general counsel if no one in the C-Suite knows who you are.  You will also have the opportunity to hone new skills (and bring the skills that lawyers exude to the table, i.e., dealing with imperfect information, writing clearly, managing unwieldy projects and matters, etc.).  Many in-house lawyers bemoan the lack of opportunity within the department to “manage people,” feeling it is a necessary skill to move up the chain.  Guess what?  Managing a large strategic project or a team assigned to the project is one hundred percent the same as managing people.  You use all the same skills.  If you have this experience and anyone asks you if you have ever managed people, the answer is “Yes!”

6. “Own” something. 

Sometimes you need to make your own opportunities vs. waiting on one to present itself.  The best way to do this is to spot an area of need at the company or within the legal department and move to claim it as yours, i.e., you “own” it.  One example for me was way back in the mid-1990s and something nascent called “data privacy.”  No one wanted it, no one really knew what it was.  I thought it looked interesting and grabbed it.  Over time, I was the go-to person for data issues which only become more important and more complex over time. Likewise, I always looked for administrative tasks to grab, like creating budget management tools, building the department’s intranet website, or developing the department’s goals and KPIs.  Not necessarily because I thought they were fun (they sometimes were) but because I saw the value in knowing how to do these things if I ever wanted to become general counsel.  All it took was raising my hand and asking if I could help.  The bottom line is that there are lots of opportunities within any legal department for lawyers to “own” things and become the go-to person.  It could be a specific area of the law or a type of contract or something important to administering how the department functions.  It could be applications for artificial intelligence or other technology implementations.  Think about what you want your career to be about and then find opportunities to own things that will help you advance.

7.  Know when you are in the spotlight. 

Every in-house lawyer has a mix of projects.  Most are fairly mundane and standard-issue stuff.  But, there are also those big-deal projects that have the attention of the senior management of the company and the legal department.  Learn to recognize these opportunities, i.e., when you are in the spotlight.  Some in-house lawyers shrink when the spotlight comes on, but those seeking to advance their careers rise to the occasion and use the opportunity to showcase their full range of skills, from legal skills to soft skills.  Legal skills matter, but so does a bit of P.T. Barnum! In my experience, every interaction with senior management is a time when they are measuring you.  Do you have what it takes to move up?  Are you someone they would trust with the most important issues?  Are you articulate, practical, business-oriented, and reeking of good judgment?  Knowing when the spotlight is on is a great opportunity for you – take advantage of it by learning when the switch is on and pulling out all the stops.

8. Crisis = Opportunity.   

My first in-house boss used to say, “Never let a good crisis go to waste!”  He was right.  A crisis is one big plate of opportunity for in-house lawyers to chow down on.  And there is never a time when the spotlight shines brighter on the legal team than a crisis situation.  Why? Because lawyers bring a unique set of skills to any crisis: They are:

  • The ability to see the big picture.
  • Dealing with imperfect information.
  • Making hard decisions.
  • Managing large, unwieldy projects.
  • Clear (and smart) writing.
  • Calm (but not too calm).
  • Gravitas and judgment.
  • Ability to stick to “the plan.”
  • Creating privileged documents.
  • Planning.
  • Comfort with leading.
  • Strategic thinking (e.g., what happens three moves ahead?).

And so much more!  This is why so many in-house lawyers usually end up leading crisis response teams, e.g., Covid-19.  The last CEO I worked for used to say, “True leaders run to the fire, not away from it.”  A crisis has the attention of senior management, the board of directors, and many others in the business and the legal department.  If done correctly, at the end of the crisis the business will say, “Thank God for our legal department.  They were awesome!”  Next time there is a crisis at your company, put on a cape and make a beeline toward the fire.  Opportunity is knocking!

9.  Seek out complicated projects. 

It’s easy to play it safe, doing the things you already know how to do, keeping your head down, and cranking away.  There is nothing wrong with that – if your goal is to stay put.  But, if you have a different goal, then take advantage of any opportunity to work on complicated projects that stretch your comfort zone.  First, complicated projects generally have the attention of senior management (inside and outside the department).  So, succeeding with a project that every agrees has a high degree of difficulty is a feather in your cap.  Second, learning new skills or stretching the skills you already have is good for your growth as an attorney, i.e., these “stretch projects” help you develop better technical, legal, business, and leadership skills.  Grabbing hold of a complicated project that requires face time with the C-Suite will force you to swim in the deep end.   While there is some downside from “failing” there is an incredible amount of upside from succeeding or even attempting the project.  While not directly on point for in-house lawyers, check out Jo Miller’s article in Forbes for some guidance on why complicated projects are worth doing “4 Rules for Accepting a Stretch Assignment.”  I always viewed myself as the garbage man of the legal department.  If someone didn’t want it, I’d pick it up and put it in my truck.  Within a few years of starting my in-house career, I had a very broad breadth of experience with litigation, regulatory, immigration, bankruptcy, sweepstakes, contracts, and more.  This combination made me a top-flight candidate for a general counsel role when one opened up.  All I had to do was ask for more.  Trust me, you can learn just about any area of the law with some dedication and a West’s Law in a Nutshell book!

10.  Bring them the mouse. 

This one may be a bit unconventional because it is based on feline behavior, but I am going to put it out there for your consideration.  If you own a cat (we have three rescues, along with two dogs) you will, on occasion, have the pleasure of your cat bringing you a mouse (or something else) it caught and leaving it outside your door.  Yep, nothing more interesting to step on in the dark at 3:00 a.m.  The reason cats do this is to show that you are part of the family and they want to help you. In other words, you are all on the same team.  I consistently looked for opportunities to help the business in non-legal ways by spotting non-legal issues in their contracts and providing solutions, helping them create and hone business presentations, finding business opportunities (and M&A targets) that they may not be aware of, or a host of other helpful things.  That is, my way of showing that I was part of the business team and not just a lawyer looking to only deal with legal issues and otherwise not caring about their non-legal problems. I called this “bringing them the mouse.”  I guess you could also call it “trying to be helpful” (but the former sounds way cooler and conjures up much more interesting imagery).  Whatever you want to call it, the key is to look for opportunities to be helpful to the business in ways that do not always involve legal advice about legal issues.  By doing so, you will encourage them to come to you for more than just legal advice and you will find yourself more integrated into the business – part of the team!  When the business sees you as a teammate and not an obstacle to overcome, your ability to stick the landing on your career path increases dramatically.   Go find some mice.  Right now!

So, there you have it.  While applicable to all in-house lawyers regardless of where they are in their career, I think the above points are most valuable for those just starting out or just a few years into their in-house position.  Still, I hope everyone sees that there is a constant flow of opportunities coming their way day after day when you are an in-house attorney.  You just need to spot them or, if need be, create them. Regardless of how they come your way, taking advantage of these opportunities is a proven way to build your in-house career the right way.

Sterling Miller
September 30, 2021

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than a Cost Center will be available next month! Stay tuned for an announcement when it is available to purchase via ABA publishing. 

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale now at the ABA website (including as e-books).  If you are having trouble finding it or buying it, let me know.

I am available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.
Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net or, if you would like a CLE for your team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

The original post can be found here.

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