A mentee of mine recently started his first job as in-house corporate counsel and asked if I had any tips for the transition, especially for a lawyer coming from a law firm. Here are a few suggestions, based on my personal experience, for starting off strong in-house.
1. Acknowledge That Relationships Are Everything
While relationships are probably important to law practice generally, I have seen how they are crucial for in-house corporate counsel.
From a very practical perspective, here’s the difference between law firms and corporations. You can be a jerk, but a very smart jerk, and still have a job at a law firm — if you bill a lot of hours or have a book of business. However, if you are a jerk at a company, your clients will simply not come to you. They will seek advice from someone else (also known as internal forum shopping). Or if they have to come to you because their manager said so, they may not come as quickly or may withhold information, undermining the value you can bring.
So, while chatting about your weekend while grabbing coffee or lunch with colleagues (not potential clients) was generally frowned on at a big law firm, it is fundamental to building relationships at a company as an in-house corporate counsel.
You should be introducing yourself, getting to know others, and engaging in small talk.
While this sounds a bit simplistic, as in-house corporate counsel you need to be generally liked in addition to being respected as a subject matter expert.
This is why my first suggestion is to schedule 15- to 20-minute coffee chats with various people you meet — whether colleague or client — especially if they have been with the company for a while. Do this while you are not yet overwhelmed with work.
During the chats, you want to get a sense of what the company culture is really like, what they love about what they do, and what they love about the company. Maybe ask them who their favorite lawyer has been to work with and why (and if there was a least favorite, why).
As you close out, ask if they have any advice or resources for someone new like you. And, of course, show immense gratitude and offer yourself as a future resource.
2. Listen, Learn, and Take a Lot of Notes
While this may sound obvious, my second tip is to get a notebook that is easy to carry and carry that notebook with you to every meeting to jot down notes. I would probably do this for any new job, but I especially recommend it since going in-house itself is completely new.
The first 90 days in-house may feel like you’re drinking from a firehose, especially as you are trying to learn about the company, the legal department, your specific team and your own role — all at the same time.
The reason for taking notes is that you will receive a lot of information, and you won’t have the experience or context to know if it’s important or not, or whether you should remember it or not. So, for now, just jot it down. You can organize and understand later.
For now, you want to listen and learn as much as you can (which is also related to scheduling those 15-minute chats).
What are some things you might want to jot down?
- Names and roles of the people you meet.
- Acronyms, terms and commonly used jargon.
- Facts about the company generally — like how many employees there are, how many locations and different parts of the business.
- Resources you hear of that you can explore later.
3. Take Time to Explore Resources and Set Up Your Systems
My last tip for setting yourself up for success as in-house corporate counsel is to explore internal and external resources while you have the time to do it and set up your systems. Here are some resources you may want to find, explore or flag for future use:
- Sign up for law firm alerts, blogs and publications. This is a great way to stay on top of developments in the law that your clients will expect you to know.
- Sign up for any subscriptions (like industry publications) or bar associations that your company pays for. For example, the Association of Corporate Counsel has been instrumental for me.
- Create Google Alerts for your company.
- Read company policies, procedures and practices.
- Learn and explore the document management system.
- Sign up for Business Partnering Groups or Employment Resource Groups, or the company Slack or Yammer, to stay plugged in and find out about formal mentoring programs so you can learn more about the company.
When I say invest some time in setting up your systems, what I mean is, how do you envision organizing and managing your work? This will evolve, but it helps to think about it strategically. For example:
- Will you have separate notebooks (whether virtual or hard copy) for each of your clients or projects?
- Will you use Microsoft Tasks, Planner and To-Do (or other apps) to stay on top of your growing to-do list?
- Where and how will you keep your done list? A done list is especially helpful when you are in-house because you will likely no longer have billables or a 20-page brief or motion to show how you’ve been spending your time.
- How will you demonstrate your value?
Before I Forget …
Congrats on joining the in-house profession! It is definitely different from working in a law firm, but it can be immensely rewarding getting to see how your legal advice is implemented and preventing problems in the first place.
YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY MENTORS
60-Minute Mentoring for Lawyers and Law Students: Small Commitments, Quick Rewards. In this easy-to-use guide, Amy Timmer and Matt Cristiano explain why having more than one mentor is essential for new lawyers — and they set you up to make the most of mentor relationships. The book explains how 60-minute mentoring works (versus traditional mentoring); finding mentors; questions to ask; how to plan for mentoring sessions; and much more. This helpful guide is packed with sample questions, anecdotes and checklists.