You’ve landed the in-house job, now what?

Landing a new in-house position can come with an initial feeling of exhilaration, but the change associated with moving to a new company, or moving in-house for the first time, can feel daunting and intimidating.  I’ve moved to a few different in-house departments over my decade of practice, and while each organization has been different, I’ve learned a few core maxims that help set myself up for long term success. 

1. Expect the unexpected.   No matter how much research you’ve done on the company or the industry, or how many people you interviewed with prior to accepting the position, you really don’t know what to expect in your new role until you get started.  From potential legal issues percolating within the company to the real impact of new regulatory schemes on your company’s operations, a variety of novel issues can hit your desk right away that you did not anticipate.  Arrive with the expectation that you will be quickly presented issues and matters of first impression (for you, and possibly for the company), and don’t let the unexpected rattle you.

2. Research, research, research.  Even if you’ve been working in the industry or advising your new employer as outside counsel prior to taking a role in-house, you will need to get up to speed with new developments in the core areas of law that you will handle, the common legal issues that your company will likely face, as well as the general regulatory and enforcement landscape that impacts your industry.  Depending on the industry and the company, trying to identify and understand all of this may feel like trying to drink from a fire hose, but at least being familiar with where and how to find relevant information will give you a head start.  Even more than three years in with my current company, I still try to scan over at least one or two industry news briefs each day to stay on top of new developments, as well as engage in additional legal reading and research on new and emerging issues that I find in my daily practice.  

3. Look and listen first.  When I first join a new company or start advising a new operating unit, I will try to spend my first few weeks quietly watching and listening as much as possible.  In particular, I recommend actively observing group dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and communication styles, as well as listening for and noting formal and informal procedures and processes, company priorities, vernacular, and core values.  Whenever possible, I ask to sit in to observe team meetings for the groups I support and will take my laptop and work for a few hours at the physical location of the team so I can get a feel for how the team operates and communicates.

4. Take notes.   I typically fill up at least a few legal pads of paper with notes during my first few weeks at a new in-house position, and always carry a pad of paper, multiple pens, and a highlighter everywhere I go.  As with any new employment, you are inundated with all forms of vital information during your first few days and weeks, so be sure to write everything down so that you can refer back to it later.  I have a couple of legal pads full of miscellaneous notes that I tabbed and keep within arm’s reach at my desk to remind myself of everything from my team’s rendezvous location for fire drills to a set of last resort contract provisions for a particular type of template agreement.

5. Build relationships early.  The most essential ingredient for my successful in-house practice is relationships.  While our role as in-house counsel inherently requires us to engage in difficult or uncomfortable conversations, establishing collegial working relationships based upon trust, respect, and credibility is essential to endure those tough days.  To that end, I make a conscious effort right away to spend time with my new team and those I support to get to know their work style, communication preferences, and how they react under stress and in conflict.     

6. Reserve judgment. While it may be a natural tendency to want to come into a new job and make your mark with recommendations for sweeping overhauls to policies, procedures, processes, or documents to prove your worth, unless necessary for legal or regulatory compliance, engaging in any such hasty directive for change may end up damaging your credibility and relationships.  Instead, whenever possible, first take the time to discover and understand the “who, what, where, why, and how” behind a given situation, issue, or matter that you think requires change. Being able to demonstrate that you engaged in due diligence will add credibility to your recommendations, help you build relationships with those impacted, and bolster your reputation within the company.

For those of you in-house, what other tenets have you found helpful in starting in a new in-house role? Please share in the comments!

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