Top traits for succeeding in-house

Some may view going in-house as an opportunity to leave the stresses of private practice behind but a panel of experienced general counsel want to set the record straight about that — don’t think it means a lighter load. The client can be just as demanding and so is the work.

“Some wildly underestimate what’s required of them and they stick around too long. It’s not a sanctuary for those looking for a slower pace,” says Simon Fish, executive vice president and general counsel of the Bank of Montreal.

Fish was speaking as part of a panel entitled Managing Your First Five Years: Critical Concepts for Your Success In-house, part of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Corporate Counsel Institute Canada held Monday and Tuesday in Toronto.

“I’ve interviewed people who when asked why they want to come in-house say they are seeking ‘a balance’ in their life. In my mind I’m already thinking ‘You’re out of here.’ That’s not the reason you want to join my legal group. It fails to recognize the demands of in-house lawyers.”

Fish also had this advice for those new to the in-house role: “Never say no. If someone comes to you with a great opportunity be slow to turn up your nose at it.”

Going in-house often means taking on responsibilities and learning skills not typically taught at law school or in a firm, many of which are related to business management, says Kathryn Chisholm, senior vice president of legal and regulatory and government affairs with Capital Power Corp. in Alberta.

“You need to be a project manager — you need to be able to herd cats, but don’t let your communication skills get in the way of your advocacy skills. You are risk managers; it’s what makes the difference between good and great internal counsel,” says Chisholm, who adds that a successful general counsel is so because they immerse themselves in the business of the company they work for and ask questions that show they want to aid in its success.

“The only way I ended up in a GC role was because I asked questions that didn’t have anything to do with legalities. I demonstrated an interest in the business that showed I was interested and loyal,” she says.

Project management skills come in handy when dealing with external counsel, says Chisholm. “You need to closely manage external counsel and you must manage them, don’t just monitor external counsel. They aren’t gods — they do have human-like traits.”

ViXS Systems Inc. general counsel Cheryl Foy emphasized the importance of learning about the culture of the company you’re working for and understanding the needs and challenges of the business.

“Figure out who you’re working with. It’s folly to go in with the idea that ‘I’m the lawyer’ — people will argue with your legal opinion. You have to build credibility so assess the culture first,” says Foy.

And when Foy found herself in a situation in a previous in-house job where she wanted to be part of the executive team but wasn’t regarded as such she received this advice: “You need to be acting like you’re at the table already.”

Possibly one of the most important shifts lawyers need to make when they go in-house is their communication style, says David Allgood, executive vice president and general counsel with the Royal Bank of Canada.

“Adapt a communication style that reflects that your audience has changed,” he says. “Remember it’s the enterprise who is your client now.”

Chisholm agrees, saying long-winded legal opinions don’t give the business units what they really need.

“I always tell my lawyers, never come to me with a problem, always come to me with a solution.”

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