15 Tips for Effective In-House Counseling

by F.

I’ve been thinking about returning to the practice of law in 2007, trying to figure out if it’s something I want to do. To help me decide, I’m browsing my diary entries and other documents I wrote during that time, reconstructing memories of my old job (which was at Microsoft).

Before I left, I wrote down a few tips I thought were useful to me as inside counsel—things to remember for my next legal position. I recently found the file (thank you Spotlight) and reread it. The tips still seem sensible to me—for in-house lawyering and maybe other jobs, too. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Just Breathe

Most issues that come up at work are not life and death. The company will survive, you won’t get fired, and no small animals will be harmed. So before thinking about an issue, take a breath. Remember, you’re paid for your judgment, not speed. This doesn’t mean you should be slow. But people will remember a wrong decision you made far longer than a right decision that took a while for you to make.

2. Control your own schedule

Schedule time to think. Put in on your calendar. Don’t let others control your schedule for you.

3. Hold Office Hours

The clients love this, in my experience. The idea is that you set aside a block of time each week—maybe an hour—and camp out in a conference room near your clients. Whoever wants to stop by and ask a legal question can, first come, first served. It makes the rank-and-file employees feel they have contact with you. It’s also a great way to keep up on what’s going on in the business.

4. Be nice to outside counsel

They will save your bacon. Develop those relationships and send enough work outside so that it makes business sense for the outside firm to serve you.

5. Be efficient

You’ll get a lot of e-mails. Many can be ignored. Ask, “Do I need to reply at all to this?” Many times the answer is, “No.”

6. Be concise

Know how to write an e-mail. Lawyers talk to much, and often write to much as well. Boil it down to one sentence. If there’s a decision to be made, lay it out: option 1, option 2, option 3. Think there are too many nuances? Tough. There’s no alternative. Sand off those rough edges.

7. Know the business and the culture of the company

Take a class. Know the argot, the product, the market, the customer, the reputation in the industry. If you don’t know the way the products are made, you’ll lose credibility with your clients.

8. Define your own role

Lawyers can do a lot of things. There is substantial overlap between the tasks that business developers do and lawyers, for instance. Do you want to do someone else’s job? If you think you’ll get credit for it, do it. But it may be a waste of time. Also, when roles are not well defined, you can get work dumped on you. Particularly if you are new. So, strike preemptively. At the end of the meeting, it’s like Jeopardy: “So, Martin, will you be calling Mr. Tinkleman at Nonstandard Semiconductor?” Take the initiative.

9. Focus on the issue

What’s the legal issue? If there are more than one, stack rank them. What’s most important? Being an in-house lawyer is not an exam in law school where you’re goal is to think of 10,000 issues that could arise from a scenario. You’ve got to be much more practical than that.

10. Know who your friends are

Some business people like lawyers, some don’t. Some know how to work with them, some don’t. You will probably not be able to change their views. Know who is who and plan accordingly. Find someone you can work with to get the job done. Ignore the recalcitrant.

11. Always know your scene objective

When an actor goes on stage to do a scene, he knows what his character’s goal is in that scene. If he doesn’t, he’s in trouble. Similarly, ask yourself, “In this meeting, what do I want? What does X want from me?” If the meeting starts to go sideways, just ask, “Why are we here? What’s the goal?” There’s no reason to be embarrassed about asking this.

12. Don’t bow down to inexperienced clients

In-house lawyers have conflicting demands. On the one hand, you need to “partner with the business” or whatever your management says it wants. On the other, some times you are the most experienced person in the room—the only adult. When clients are running amok, you have to be able to tell them, “That’s not what we’re going to do.” This can be hard for a lawyer, because we are almost universally despised, or thought to be useless. “Oh, you’re just being lawyerly,” the client thinks, concluding that you are just another asshole preventing him from doing his job.

Sometimes you can use your credibility to get your way, but often you’ve never met these particular clients before, so they don’t care who you are—you are no one to them. If persuasion doesn’t work, one last resort is to go on strike: you just refuse to do whatever stupid thing the client wants. Of course, you have to be confident that you are right and others (that is, higher ups) will see your rectitude in the end. This sounds harsh, but which is worse: to have maybe caused a delay while the client escalates the issue, or to have your name attached to a bad deal or decision? I’ll take the former.

13. Beware of Newbies

New people are dangerous—new lawyers, new business development people, new managers.

14. Know the organization chart

Know the org chart for legal. Be able to traverse it. And maintain your contacts in different parts of the org. Often, a simple phone call can solve a problem faster than a meeting.

15. Clients want solutions, not necessarily legal solutions

When I was an associate, I worked with a senior lawyer who told me a little secret: “Clients want a solution,” he said. “Sometimes that’s a legal solution, sometimes it’s a business solution, sometimes it’s an accounting solution. Our job is to help them get to a solution—whatever it may be.” So, to help the client you may call your friend the accountant. You may not be able to bill the time, but I suspect that in the long run this is the better way to go.

So there they are. Your mileage may vary, but doing these things served me well in a very demanding environment.

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