One of the biggest changes in working as an in-house lawyer versus working at a firm is that you’re no longer surrounded by people who approach problems like a lawyer. Product development, engineering, marketing/engagement, BD/sales, creative, policy, HR and management all have different discipline-specific takes on how to approach business problems.
This means that you’ve got to change the way you do things. A lot. (Of course, good outside counsel know and understand this too.)
In no particular order, here are the 8 major things I’ve learned (and rediscovered) about practicing law at a company - I find it useful to remind myself of them from time to time:
1. Presentation is everything. Even if you’ve got the best intentions at heart and your analysis is spot-on, your presentation will make or break you.
2. Cut to the chase. People have about 1/10th the interest and concentration to dig into an issue (especially a legal one) as you think they do, so keep communications short and direct. Focus on recommendations backed up with justification and minimize analysis. Keep that genius argument to yourself unless it is material to the decision.
3. Make recommendations, not CYA emails. Don’t stop at analyzing risks - recommend a path and justify it well.
4. Stay true to yourself and your ethics. As a lawyer, you are the conscience of the company and everyone you work with. If you’re really not sure what to do, use your state bar ethics hotline.
5. Be relevant when you apply the law, not stoic. There are very few black-and-white risks out there and determining the likelihood of a bad outcome is usually a subjective exercise. Relevance is especially important when negotiating a deal as the person on the other side usually has a very different idea of the importance of certain risks.
6. Identify your mentors. There are many, many ways to be a lawyer, not to mention a service-oriented professional. Find people who do it like you think it should be done.
7. Know your stuff and be prepared to justify your position. Many of my clients have at least a layman’s specialization in a particular area of law that applies to them, and sometimes a deeper specialization than I do.
8. Know when you need to be involved (and, more importantly, when you don’t). Almost all business problems have a legal component, but not all business problems are legally significant. Figuring out when you need to be involved is incredibly hard to do, especially if you’re a problem solving oriented type-A. Seriously, if you figure out how to do this well - let me know and I’ll buy you a drink.