Header graphic for print
In-house Access Insight & Commentary for In-House Counsel Worldwide

Advice for Today’s In-house Lawyer

Posted in Career

This semester, I began teaching the course, “Introduction to the In-House Practice,” at Georgetown Law School. In preparing for an upcoming class, I decided to do a little crowd–sourcing. I posed the following to the ACC Group on LinkedIn: What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone going in-house?“

Not surprisingly, ACC group members had a lot to offer and provided useful, practical information and advice that would be helpful for today’s in-house lawyer, or beneficial to someone thinking about going in-house. 

Here is a brief summary and supporting quotes that seemed particularly noteworthy to me.

The advice that appeared most frequently concerned the importance of knowing and understanding:

  • the company,
  • the business or industry, and/or
  • the people you work with.

“[The m]ost important thing is to know your business inside and out. Understand your organization’s goals and where its risks lie. Have regular contact with all key departments/divisions so you understand what they are working to accomplish and, more importantly, they understand you’re there to help them, not to say no or to throw up road blocks.”

“… take every opportunity to learn all you can. Read trade press, go on factory tours, go on sales calls, take clients to lunch, attend team retreats — take every piece of information and opportunity you are offered, and don’t be afraid to ask. Your internal clients will appreciate your interest.”

Several members also emphasized the importance of listening.

“Listen to learn. Being an active listener will help you understand all of the issues (including the unspoken ones). Many times, in-house clients do not understand your role, so be the “consigliore” — they will value your legal perspective if they believe that you are there to help, and you can only help if you LISTEN.”

They also noted that simply getting the information you need could be a challenge.

“Expect the process of ascertaining accurate and complete facts to often be as challenging as determining how the law will apply to them.”

The respondents frequently asserted the importance of effective communication, using descriptors such as “succinct,” “simple,” “unambiguous,” and without legal jargon. They further emphasized the importance of solving problems and doing more than merely saying “no.”

“… [Y]ou should always remember that your job is to anticipate and solve problems and find solutions, not just to say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Also, never say, ‘it’s not my problem because it’s a business issue.’ At the end of the day, they’re all business issues. You need to help resolve the issue (and, never write a memo more than 2 pages long — the business guys will never read it. …)”

“… [L]ife in-house isn’t black and white! The best legal argument in the world may never fly because it simply doesn’t serve the business. Also, legal opinions and advice that isn’t straightforward and presented in a way that can be shared with their business stakeholders isn’t really helpful — you must be decisive, even in the face of less than perfect or less than complete facts. If I sent business clients a memo with footnotes and case cites, it would be round filed instantly.”

“Know when to say no, but chart out a path to yes. A business won’t last long doing the wrong things, but it will also get nowhere doing nothing.”

Finally, several comments implicitly or explicitly affirmed the value of ACC to the professional development of in-house attorneys.

Several people quoted from or cited “Reebok Rules,” a classic article that first appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of the ACCA Docket. Although 20 years old, this article remains relevant today and is well-worth reviewing.

“I have always felt that the Reebok Rules provides some excellent advice.”

Reebok Rules:

  1. Lawyers should attend all key business and
staff meetings.

  2. Eliminate the “No ” word from your vocabulary.
 Remember: Your client suggested the idea because he or she liked it, and
 wants your help; don’t cast yourself as a hindrance.

  3. Corporate counsel are business people — hone and use your business judgment. 
As lawyers, we get an opportunity to approach a problem without
 line responsibility for it. However, the corollary of this rule is to make sure
 you still give good legal advice — if you don’t do so, no one will.
  4. Return phone calls promptly — nothing is worse than a client who
 cannot get in touch with his or her lawyer.

  5.  Learn about problems early — it is much easier to convince a client to
revise a proposal in its incipient phase than it is to curb it once it has begun to gather momentum or supporters who develop a personal investment in its success. To continue reading, click here.

Another cited a well-received annual meeting program, that was both a presentation and an article in the ACC Docket. Here is the article: I Just Became a General Counsel: What Should I Do Next?

Someone else cited the importance of “continuing to network.”

And, then there was my personal favorite:

Join ACC ASAP and read everything you can on being new to in-house practice.

I believe this to be very good advice, indeed, since ACC has a wealth of resources on all of the examples offered from the group.

Although I sought this guidance for my law students, much of what I received is relevant for today’s in-house lawyer. I hope you agree.

P.S. Co-teaching my class at Georgetown Law School has been one of my most enjoyable and challenging activities since leaving ACC. As with many other endeavors, ACC members have always been willing to share their expertise and help out. So, I recently established an ACC eGroup called “ACC Law School Professors” to enable those ACC members who currently teach or lecture at law schools to share resources and ideas about their respective experiences. For those of you who currently serve as adjunct professors I hope you will join.

Fred Krebs