"Dear Fourth Year" - Lessons of an In-House Lawyer

by JD Supra Perspectives

Be a giver, not a taker. In the long run, the giver always wins... 

Dear Fourth Year,

There you are, waiting for a partner to provide comments, daydreaming about going in-house. You've thought about it for a while – maybe you'd like to be more of a decision maker, maybe you are more interested in business models than risk factors, maybe you've run the numbers and realize you are paid about a quarter of your total billable hours, maybe you'd like to actually enjoy a vacation for once, or... ok, ok, you get it…

So you do a cost/benefit analysis: an in-house role could offer better work/life balance, ability to have real impact on a business and a chance to expand your skill set. However, you're making good money, have job security and are learning a ton. You are likely risk averse and wonder, "What's it like in-house? Will it work out?"

Sh*t (still) rolls downhill

  • I’ll begin by saying in-house is vastly different from law firm life, in good ways and bad. It's not for everyone, but it definitely is for some. Here are some practical realities that surprised me when I went in-house:
  • Meetings, lots of them. 
  • Believe it or not, you are totally spoiled at a law firm. In-house, you will most likely handle your own calendar, set your own meetings, and edit, format, print and shred your own documents. Hands dirty indeed. 
  • When it comes to internal operations of a company, while there's usually some method to the madness, there's always madness. Companies don’t have their stuff in order as neatly as you'd think. 
  • You will hear "because that’s the way we’ve always done it" more than you could ever imagine. And it will piss you off.
  • Politics is a real thing. The key is to know it exists and when people are managing to it. 
  • When I was a summer associate, I was lucky enough to meet the CEO of a public company. The only thing he said to me was, “You know the first rule of plumbing don't ya kid?  Sh*t rolls downhill.”  If you think doing the dirty work ends when you go in-house, you are sorely mistaken. Whether you are a Staff Attorney or GC, you are always downhill. Accept it.

If it were me, I would do this...

Here is some guidance on what I’ve found drives success:

  • Realize quickly that everyone is your client. Not in the way you have to wine and dine them (though that can be fun), but you are still in the service business. The client just becomes the internal business folks. 
  • Stakeholder management is extremely important. If someone is impacted by a decision, it's always a good idea to let them weigh in. 

Realize quickly that everyone is your client...

  • Understand that many people want to go to work for a few hours, make a salary, and go home. For the most part, people do not care as much as whipper-snapper first-year lawyers or CEOs making millions. Regardless, you need those people on your side. Which brings me to my next point... 
  • Cultivate relationships with everyone. From CEO to mail room. Not only is it the kind and human thing to do, but getting different perspectives and having friends always helps. 
  • Be a giver, not a taker. Listen to the Ted Talk on this. In the long run, the giver always wins. 
  • Tackle problems head-on. The black and white is easy; you live in the grey. 
  • The right legal answer is not always the right commercial answer, and vice versa. Find that balance. 
  • Understand that not everyone is a great decision maker and people want comfort. They want to be able to say, "I spoke to the lawyer." Don’t shy away out of fear you will be wrong. The fact is, you WILL be wrong once in a while, but people come to you for a reason. Resist what you’ve learned in your four long years of law firm practice and please do not go the route of "well, you could do this, but you could also do that." The most valuable and trusted legal advisors give options and then say "if it were me, I would do this." I can’t stress this enough (advice to outside counsel here, too).

​Your real value as an-house attorney is to get the job done, not prevent it...

Own it

  • Your real value as an-house attorney is to get the job done, not prevent it from happening. Don’t sit in your ivory tower and spew legalities. Understand the business model, what people actually do and need, and where the risks actually are. Then provide a course of action to accomplish goals. Simply put, own it. 
  • The correct answer is rarely "no."  It may be, "yes, but," but rarely "no." 
  • Making no move is sometimes the right move, but make sure you do that consciously – indecision is the only bad decision. 
  • Strive to understand your business as good or better than anyone. As a generalist, you have the unique opportunity of sitting in the middle of the business and seeing how it all fits together. You truly are the axle in a wheel. The more you show curiosity, agility and that you “get it”, the more people will trust you and opportunities will present themselves. 
  • Be a sponge. Learn your business, learn your industry, pay attention in CLE. Treat every conversation as a free lesson. Oh, and definitely learn the company’s elevator pitch. 
  • Network. Internally and externally. It sucks at times, but do it. 
  • Find your weak spot and grow there. We all have weak spots, and we all need to grow

...a sure path to failure is to pretend to be someone else.

You are only you

This final point is not just for an in-house lawyer, but for all of us. It is a really hard one to get and has taken me a very long time: 

  • Find your voice and your style. If you are naturally aggressive, be aggressive. Naturally a mediator, mediate. In the end, you are only you. Different personalities make it to the top, though a sure path to failure is to pretend to be someone else.

Best of luck, kid.




[Anthony Greco is the Senior Corporate Counsel at Kargo, in charge of all things legal for the leader in mobile brand advertising. He cut his teeth at Sullivan & Cromwell and now, remarkably some might say, has a decade of experience in a broad array of corporate law matters. He lives his life by the Accountability Ladder, look it up… Connect on LinkedIn.]

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