While attending a recent general counsel forum sponsored by my local Association of Corporate Counsel chapter, I gleaned some practical advice relevant to individuals looking to move in-house. The panelists represented a diverse cross section of organizations, including a small social media company, a health care company, an international non-governmental organization, and a large global energy company. Notwithstanding the range of organizational settings, they all looked for similar skill sets and attributes in prospective candidates, including:
• listening skills;
• ability to manage stress;
• knowledge of how the company makes money;
• an understanding of how legal contributes to the bottom line;
• a personality that is “socially acceptable” and even “fun” (although this generated laughter from the audience, this comment had a serious underpinning: if you fit in and are fun to be with, you will develop relationships within the organization that make it easier to connect with others and to do your job);
• a desire to be part of the business; and
• an inquisitive nature that shows preparation and a true interest in the business (versus just getting a job).
The panelists also offered advice for newly hired in-house counsel:
• Ask questions;
• Be candid and speak up if you need help;
• Learn the bottom line and how the law department contributes to the success ofthe organization;
• Develop and build relationships;
• Develop relationships outside of your office; and
• Educate yourself and learn to read and understand financial statements.
Whether you are a member of a large or a small legal department, you must be able to see the big picture. Remember, the law department does not operate in a silo. To effectively handle a legal issue, know the business. The business objectives should provide the framework for the metrics you use to define success.
As one panelist noted, legal issues must be placed in context because the organization seeks “resolution of the issue, not resolution of the legal issue.”
Additional observations by the panelists to help the career of any in-house counsel:
• Never bring a problem without a solution;
• Be candid about what you can and cannot do;
• Be civil — never burn any bridges;
• Be prepared;
• Bring others along;
• Stretch beyond your comfort zone; and
• Have fun.
Several years ago during a conference at Georgetown University, Burton Staniar, then chief executive officer and now current chairman of Knoll Inc., described a “great lawyer” as follows:
• Creative: willing to be innovative and think outside the lines when appropriate;
• Cost conscious: while being effective and productive;
• Can do attitude: gets on with things and solves problems;
• Courageous: enough to say “no” and “yes”;
• Conscience: an unequivocal model of integrity;
• Can think: and can see “around corners”;
• Common sense: without it legal knowledge is useless.
Of course, when hiring an in-house counsel, every employer that I know also seeks someone with common sense or good judgment. However, as Robert Major of legal recruiters Major Lindsey & Africa has noted, “Judgment is many things and seems to be more often showcased when it’s lacking.”
While you may have heard much of this before, it is always helpful to review and think about how you can use this information to advance your career. Consider for example one simple approach — meaningful self-evaluation. You might seek feedback from clients, colleagues, and others and then use that information so you can begin to work on those areas that need some attention.
So now that we have discussed items to consider before moving in-house, and what the employer looks for, a logical next question is how do you find these jobs? That will be a topic for another day, but at a minimum, you should develop your personal network and use online networks such as LinkedIn. You might also visit online sites such as law association web sites and legal recruiters.