Eight Things I Learned Working In-House

April 15, 2016

When I was a senior associate in a law firm, seven or eight years out of law school, I accepted a position at a growing, privately owned company as its first in-house counsel. My experience up until that time had been at a very large, prominent law firm and also at a small, county firm, so I knew nothing of what it was like to work for one client as an employee. Because I was the first attorney to be employed by the company, I had no role model, no training, not even a proper job description to guide me. This trial-by-fire taught me many things that have been invaluable throughout my career; things that I never would have learned if I had stayed in private practice. I’ve since returned to life in a big firm, but that in-house experience enabled me to develop unique skills and a self-reliance that I believe are applicable to my practice today. Here are eight key lessons I learned:

Understand Your Client. The first and most important thing I did after accepting the in-house position was to understand how the business (my client) operated and what its legal needs were, especially since my colleagues had never worked with an attorney on their team before. Who are the decision-makers? What is the business model? How do things get done? What are the priorities? I carefully observed the inner workings of the company on a daily basis until I understood my role on the executive team. Law schools don’t teach you the realities of business—working in-house does.

Be Flexible. I joined the team as a trained real estate attorney, but quickly realized that I was responsible for a wide variety of legal and non-legal matters. I oversaw the risk management staff and regularly interacted with outside counsel responsible for claims. I formed a nonprofit organization related to the beloved hobby of the company’s owner. I provided legal advice to employees regarding contracts. The list goes on and on. It was my job to figure out what was needed from a legal standpoint for the company, even if it was unrelated to my field.

You Are An Attorney First. Once I became part of the team with my in-house employers, I was often asked to work on matters that had few to no legal aspects. These projects ranged from designing a process to choose a software developer to reviewing letters and proposals for clarity, grammar and persuasiveness. I learned that even when I was working on something that was not strictly “legal,” I could use my training as an attorney to polish written work product, advise my co-workers of potential pitfalls and contingencies, and troubleshoot from a perspective that differed from the other executives in finance, design and operations. At no time did I take myself entirely out of my legal role, however, and I often cautioned my client on business decisions from a legal standpoint they had not considered.

Relationships Matter. It’s incredibly important to develop the respect of co-workers and to be viewed as a team member, pulling in the same direction. I learned to speak the language of business people and to work collaboratively, not to be removed from where all the real operational work was done. Building those working relationships, showing you care about the end result as well as getting there in an ethical, legal way, will take you far in-house. My legal training enabled me to bring valuable skills to the table and earn the respect of the other executives. The bottom line is—your client has to respect you and to like working with you.

Establish A Support Network. Working in a solo or very small legal department, I experienced many situations that were new to me. I was fortunate to have developed a network of attorneys that I could contact for advice in practices areas outside of my area of expertise. My familiarity with many of the law firms in town, how law firms operate and who can help as outside counsel was a tremendous advantage. I strive to be a resource for my colleagues and in-house counsel, as I know how important that can be.

Your Career Path Need Not Be A Straight Line. While treading the path to partnership in a firm is an enviable goal for many attorneys, it is not necessarily the best or only career trajectory. I have never felt that I “missed the boat” by leaving a law firm and working in-house for so many years. It was a rich experience that gave me confidence and a unique perspective that many clients value. After having surmounted countless hurdles and made adjustments to a variety of new environments, I truly believe in my abilities. I know that I can do almost anything I set my mind to. That is irreplaceable.

In-House Work Is Different. Nothing in law school or working in a law firm will prepare you for working in-house (unless you had a previous career or a lengthy internship working in the business world). That doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, but you will need to pay attention, adapt and acquire a new mind-set in order to succeed. Lawyers are no longer the economic engine when they join a company and they need to use their skills to justify their existence. Often, an in-house attorney has few resources, so you must rely on a combination of outside counsel, your own form file, and research skills that must be dusted off and sharpened.

Believe In Yourself. The transition from law firm to in-house (and sometimes, back again) can be taxing. While you’re functioning as a lawyer in both settings, it almost feels like changing careers in many respects. I relied on my skills as a lawyer, including: my ability to analyze; to write clearly and persuasively; to consider all potential pitfalls before choosing a course of action; and to allow my client to make business decisions; which all served me well in-house. When you are working solo or in a small in-house department, self-confidence and self-reliance are key.

Ultimately, my experience in-house taught me that stepping outside the box can best prepare you to step back in. The opportunity to function within a business broadened my perspective and skill-set, and applying my legal mindset to business issues gave me confidence in my training and the value I could bring. My circumstances forced me to be resourceful, open-minded and independent, building a sense of self-assuredness I carry back to the law firm and beyond. Whether on a linear career path or one with twists and turns, take advantage of opportunities to step outside your comfort zone—the payoff will be worth it.

BY SUSAN FETTERMAN

sculpture in front of the Thompson Center
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