While much has changed over the past 20 to 30 years, there is still substantial continuity in the manner in which in-house counsel have contributed to the success of their employers. While the issues change and skills and techniques evolve, many of the basic concepts remain the same.
While reviewing some old files (part of my continuous and seemingly futile effort to get organized since leaving the Association of Corporate Counsel) I came across several items that piqued my interest because of their similarity to what you see today in many writings generally, as well as an article on proving your value, which I recently posted.
In 1983, the ACC presented a program entitled Introduction to Inside Practice, a precursor to today’s well-received Corporate Counsel University. During one of the sessions, which addressed how to be an in-house lawyer, the speaker shared his insights based on responses to a question on what advice would you give someone new to in-house practice? Here are some of the responses offered 30 years ago:
• “Think before you speak.”
• “Learn the business and try to be as practical as possible in your advice.”
• “[You] must make that initial effort to understand the client’s business, its customers, products, sales, and competitors.”
• “You need to be visible — go to sales meetings, staff meetings, lunches, and anything else you can manage.”
• “Keep your eyes and ears open — be patient — it takes time to learn your client but you have to do it.”
• “Where there is change, there is opportunity.”
• And my personal favorite, “Don’t be an a-hole.”
I also came across an article entitled “Career Management: It’s Up to You” from the June 2001 ACC Docket that included a sidebar about the “Top ten things corporations want their in-house counsel to know.” It included the following items:
• “To be helpful and effective, your advice must be clear and understandable by people who are not attorneys.”
• “A good answer today is usually better than a perfect answer next week.”
• “Your ethical opinion is at least as important as your legal opinion.”
• “Just as we must be able to understand your legal advice, you need to understand as much as possible about our industry.”
• “The individuals seeking your advice often think of you as their personal attorney. Make certain that everyone knows who your client is.”
• “Technology, if properly used, makes you more efficient. Stay up to date.”
Yesterday’s advice remains valid today and I fully anticipate it will be tomorrow as well.
Over the years, in-house counsel have honed and perfected their skills to adapt to changing environments and economic conditions. In-house legal departments have grown dramatically in the past 20 years and the changing regulatory environments, increased attention on risk management, and corporate compliance scrutiny created significant challenges for the in-house bar. The changes that have occurred also have propelled in-house counsel to move into more strategic roles within their organizations.
Yet, as I review my files and old program materials, it seems clear to me that much of what clients wanted from their in-house counsel 10, 15, even 30 years ago, remains true today, including:
• solid legal knowledge and appreciation for educational training;
• sound judgment;
• impeccable integrity;
• strategic vision;
• leadership: recognize good people and bring out the best in them;
• recognize the obligation as professionals to help those less fortunate through pro bono and community service;
• stay on top of technological advancements;
• focus on helping companies save time, money, and effort; and
• ability to adapt to change.
In-house counsel must continue to move forward and learn new practical skills to overcome the legal and business challenges you face. At the same time let’s remember sometimes we can learn by going back to the future.