My 20 years as president of the Association of Corporate Counsel gave me a unique perspective on the growth, opportunities, and challenges of being in-house counsel. The lessons learned and insights shared with me over the years may provide some guidance for those considering this career path.
Specifically, lawyers decide to go in-house for many reasons, such as:
• To focus on a single client;
• To be measured by the value of the contribution to the business and not the number of hours billed;
• To be a proactive part of a business working closely with the client and seeing how they implement your advice;
• To have a better quality of life (not that you work less but you have better predictability and control over your time); and
• To increase your influence on the direction of the legal profession.
I recently asked the ACC group on LinkedIn “What advice would you give to someone going in-house?”
The comments most frequently concerned the importance of knowing and understanding each of the following:
• the business or industry,
• the company, and
• the people you work with.
In-house practice varies from industry to industry and company to company. For example, what the legal department does will likely differ among companies in industries such as heavy manufacturing, consumer products, financial services, software, or health care. An emerging industry will face different issues from one that is well established, highly regulated, or both.
No matter what, joining a startup company or being the first in-house counsel with an organization will result in different challenges than becoming part of a well-established large law department.
Tom Kilroy addressed these issues when he noted two things to consider carefully before going in-house in an excellent post about making the transition from private practice in his blog GC’s Eye View. He said your role will “depend enormously on the nature of the business you join” so you need to understand “what legal does in the business you want to join.”
He also recommended joining an organization that is “legally astute” and “understands what legal can do . . . and has integrated legal into its decision-making process.” He provides a useful set of practical tips including questions such as “Does the GC sit on the executive committee and [is he or she] involved in the company’s decision-making?” I would recommend expanding this to also include participation in strategy development.
Today’s economic climate may increase the pressure to find a job no matter what, but the ACC group comments recognize that culture matters. The right culture will excite you and stimulate your success and growth; the wrong one may cause you to quit. Try to learn as much as you can before joining the company.
Bill Barnett, in his Harvard Business Review blog, affirms the importance of culture and emphasizes that to investigate culture you have to ask the right questions. First, you have to understand your role and responsibilities. Then you should try to understand the business. You can do this by asking questions about the following topics:
• performance, and
There is no right or wrong — the key is to understand your own style and then find an organization where you fit.
It goes without saying but people sometimes forget that being in-house is truly different from working at a law firm. Law firms focus on billable hours and evaluate lawyers on hours and revenue generation. As one ACC member emphasized, the “company for which you work exists to develop, market, and sell products/services to make a profit. The legal department is considered overhead, i.e. it costs the company money. . . .”
Many of the behaviours that make you successful in a law firm (e.g., more billable hours) are not valued and may be counterproductive in-house. Your value to the organization is determined more by the outcome you help to achieve rather than time spent on the matter. The legal department should play a role contributing to the bottom line, but in a different way than when you are in a law firm, which makes being involved in strategy development even more critical.
When you move in-house you assume a dual role — to your employer you are the lawyer; to outside counsel you become the client. As David Allgood, executive vice president and general counsel of the Royal Bank of Canada, emphasized at the recent Corporate Counsel Institute Canada, “you give legal advice in a business context” and to be successful you must be able to communicate with both sides of the equation in language they understand.
Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true.” If you decide to go in-house be sure you do so for the right reasons.
Fred Krebs, a senior adviser to the Association of Corporate Counsel, strategic adviser to Clearspire, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law School, joins Canadian Lawyer InHouse with his monthly online column that will focus on career advice and issues for lawyers working in corporate legal departments.