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You Can’t Be Everything to Everyone: Top Ten Pieces of Wisdom from In-House Mentors

As I come up on ten years of in-house practice, I’ve started to reflect on my legal practice journey up to this point.  From the time I had to hide in the restroom to make a quick call to my outside counsel for confirmation on a particular point of law, seconds before I had to walk into a board meeting, to the closing where I was so exhausted I tripped over my own feet and faceplanted into the floor in front of about 20 executives, I’ve had a lot of memorable moments.  Most memorable, though, are the lessons I’ve picked up along the way from my colleagues and supervisors.  Below are the top ten pieces of wisdom that have been the most influential in my in-house career development:

1. Demonstrate your value.  An in-house legal department, I’ve been told, is a luxury.  A “nice to have,” not a need, for a business to thrive.  Being the professional equivalent of a company jet or other corporate indulgence, in-house lawyers are expected to prove their worth and value-add, or otherwise they may find themselves jettisoned in the event of financial trouble or downsizing.  Know what you bring to the table and don’t be afraid to advertise those skillsets to those that pay your salary.  From successfully avoiding a multi-million dollar litigation to “seeing around the corner” to anticipate a new regulation or legal requirement that could impact your company, find ways to demonstrate that in-house counsel is attuned to the company’s unique business models, products, and services is just as valuable as other corporate support teams.       

2. Garbage in, garbage out.  You can only base your legal analysis and conclusions upon the facts and information you have in front of you.  From transactional work to performing a workplace investigation, you must get a firm grasp on all the facts to ensure you’re providing appropriate and accurate counsel.  Half truths and incomplete answers will yield useless legal advice, which can diminish your reputation and credibility if your advice is not applicable or incorrect.  Do your own due diligence, trust but verify, and if the story seems incomplete, continue to pursue all avenues until you’re satisfied you know the factual landscape.  If you aren’t given time to collect the information you need or feel like you’re not getting what you need, condition your legal guidance accordingly.      

3. Always appear as the voice of calm and reason, no matter how dire the situation.  At some point in your in-house career, you’re likely to encounter an issue that stops you in your tracks. They’re the situations that invoke a company-wide DEFCON rating, create emergency committees and standing meetings, and are accompanied by dizzying amount of confusion and finger pointing.  It is incredibly easy to slide into the chaos right along with your business partners in their deflection of blame and commiseration over various worst-case scenarios.  However, in these times of chaos and confusion, in-house counsel must be the proverbial adult in the room.  You are the calm within the storm, the woman or man with a plan, and the person who can calmly talk the group through recommended next steps, even if your knees are shaking under the table.    

4. Remember your non-verbals.  Early in my career, I learned that I have facial leakage.  No, it isn’t a drool problem, but rather, my emotions and feelings subconsciously play out across my face during a conversation—my true thoughts, feelings and opinions “leak” out from my expressions.  While my colleagues used to joke that they thoroughly enjoyed sitting across the table from me during controversial meetings, my boss and mentor at the time told me that my subconscious tendency to broadcast my feelings and opinions through my facial expressions could be more of a liability than an asset if I wanted to advance my career.  As a result, she encouraged me to make a conscious effort to rein in my expressions while visible to others within the company.  She also encouraged me to think of my meetings with our company executives and business teams as a performance, to act the part of an impartial purveyor of counsel, and to deliberately situate my facial expressions accordingly.  I still find myself furrowing my eyebrows from time to time, but I consciously try to default back to neutral expression as much as possible. 

5. Establish boundaries.  A mentor once told me that if you don’t set your own boundaries, others will set them for you, and those boundaries will always be to your detriment.   As someone afflicted with an innate need to please people, I have a very hard time saying no to a project or walking away from my to-do list at the end of the day, because it means I’m leaving something undone or not taking care of something that may disappoint someone.  At first, this could mean working the occasional couple hours in the evening, skipping lunch to do a quick contract review.  These small boundary challenges, however, can quickly spiral into an expectation that you’ll work through every lunch and work every night.  You may give someone your cell phone number to call you when you’re on vacation in case of an emergency, and suddenly they are calling you day and night, about anything and everything.  I’m guilty of boundary creep—such as working a few late nights which turns into working late every night on an important deal, or taking a conference call while I’m cooking dinner for my kids to discuss an urgent, time sensitive issue—but those I work with understand those should be exceptions rather than the rule.

6. It’s all about the relationships.  As in-house counsel, half the battle is getting employees to come to you on the front end of a situation for proactive advice, rather than wait until a situation blows up and puts you in reactive mode.  Establishing collegial working relationships with those you support is crucial to get them to view you as an ally in achieving their business goals.  My current company is big on “collision points” throughout our campus to encourage personal interactions, and I take full advantage of every collision point I encounter during my day.  From my trip to the break room for my mid-morning coffee refill, to my shuttle bus ride between buildings, I make a point to strike up a conversation with those I encounter to check in with them, see if they need anything from me or our group, or just to get the pulse on what is going on with their division or the company.  I don’t necessarily need to be liked by everyone (which is an impossible feat), but I at least need to have established relationships with everyone I support, so that when they have a question, they can come to me for help.

7. It is what it is (or alternatively, what’s done is done).  Legal issues or disputes generally arise from an action or inaction that somehow went off the rails from what should have been done.  In fact, the vast majority of my non-transactional work begins with something along the lines of someone making a mistake or misstep, saying the wrong thing, doing something without thinking, or not following company practices, policies and procedures.  While it is helpful to understand the root cause of these situations, dwelling on what went wrong and what should have been done doesn’t change the fact that it happened.  If company leadership hasn’t already initiated its own conversation on the issue, I typically request a “post-mortem” meeting to discuss what went wrong, how we can prevent it from happening again, and determine how to implement that fix. Rather than engaging in “blamestorming” and finger pointing, which creates distrust and can foster a CYA mentality that is exhausting and unproductive, I make a conscious effort to focus the conversation on the underlying issue, finding the flaw, identifying the fix, and implementing the plan to eliminate the chance of it occurring again. 

8. Come with solutions.  Especially for organizations that thrive on innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, our job as in-house counsel is multifaceted.  Our companies need to move fast, and we need to be prepared to jump in and advise on issues that may arise.  In a prior company, whenever I would stop by a senior colleague’s office to discuss the latest confounding issue of the day, she would ask if I came prepared with a solution, because nobody wants to hear a problem unless you can also tell them a way to solve it.  Even if the proposed solution is to seek outside guidance from a subject matter expert, I now make every effort to come prepared with potential solutions when I discuss an issue with leadership.         

9. Prioritize visibility within the company.  Although I am certainly guilty of engaging in more than the occasional working lunch in my office, I make a conscious effort to participate in activities that allow me to interact with employees across the entire company spectrum. In one of my previous roles, a senior attorney in my department would go on daily “power walks” through the building to not only get her steps in for the day, but to be a visible reminder to those who saw her that yes, we have in-house attorneys, and if you walk fast enough, you can get the undivided attention of one right at that moment.  While my current building does not lend itself to power-walking circuits, I try to find ways to maintain visibility for groups and employees that I don’t typically encounter on a routine basis.  I carve out time to participate in committees and groups, and I never turn down a request to give a presentation to employees on a legal topic, so they know of at least one friendly face on the legal team to come to for help.

10. You can’t be everything to everyone.  Every in-house position I’ve been in requires some form of generalist work—a legal jack of all trades that’s expert at a few.  During the years that I’ve been in-house, I’ve practiced dozens of areas of law, tackling every subject matter on the bar exam at least once (I’m looking at you, rule against perpetuities!).  While I consider myself proficient at specialties I routinely practice, I know just enough to “issue spot” in some of the areas of law that I touch only on occasion.   Most importantly, I can accept that I am not, and will never be, a specialist in all areas that are involved in my in-house practice. That means I may require the use of outside counsel from time to time.  I used to consider having to call outside counsel as a personal failure, but I’ve since learned that knowing how to quickly identify when you need a consult, even for a quick gut check on a complex question, is a valuable skillset to my company. 

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