The 5 Common Characteristics of Effective In-House Counsel

Are you a law firm associate who has thought about making the jump from your law firm to in-house? With fewer law firm associates wanting to make a run for partner, going in-house has become an increasingly appealing option for many. So what does it take to be an effective in-house lawyer? I have worked with hundreds of in-house lawyers over the past decade (and spent time myself as in-house counsel at an investment bank) and have found that the best in-house lawyers have five key similarities:

They Know Their Business Inside and Out

The best in-house lawyers are highly respected by their business-side counterparts and have a coveted “seat at the table.” Why? Because they know their business inside and out and are able to contribute meaningfully and deliver impact to the business.

As a law firm associate, you often only receive discrete assignments from a client (e.g., answer this legal question, work on this specific transaction) and you don’t get a full view of your client’s business, its history, its place in the broader market, and its vision for where it wants to grow.

To be an effective in-house counsel, however, you need to have a real understanding of the mechanics of the business itself (what the company does and how it makes money), the larger industry in which it operates and its position within that market, its growth strategy, and how market trends might impact its business objectives. Taking time to gain this knowledge will help you to give holistic advice that takes into account both legal and business implications. And that will help you add value to the conversation and earn the respect of your business-side counterparts.

They Are Effective Communicators

As an in-house lawyer, you will work with and advise non-lawyers, so you need to learn to communicate in a clear and effective way, and not let your point get muddied or misunderstood because you dive too deeply into legal principles or use too much legal jargon.

According to Warren Buffet, learning to be a good communicator is one of the most important things you can do to advance your career, and Buffet believes that you can boost your career value by 50% just by learning to be an effective speaker. Buffet, who himself had a fear of public speaking, actually took a Dale Carnegie public speaking course to help him improve (and still proudly displays his diploma on the wall of his office).

There are many ways to practice effective communication: Toastmasters or other public speaking courses, online training, or volunteering to give a presentation or conduct a CLE at your firm. All these activities are well worth the time investment. Someone who can convey information clearly and who can make a compelling case is someone who will have influence in any professional setting of which they are a part.

They Take a Practical Approach

One complaint I regularly hear from in-house clients is that attorneys they hire from law firms take too much of an academic approach to legal questions. To be an effective in-house lawyer, you need to provide practical, actionable advice.

Business-side professionals don’t want to hear about case law or legal theories. They also don’t want their in-house lawyers to simply point out problems and say something can’t be done (there definitely will be times when saying “no” will be necessary, but it shouldn’t be your go-to answer). To be an effective in-house lawyer, your mindset should be on how to identify and mitigate risk, and to advise the business side on practical courses of action that take that risk into account. This goes back to point #1 above about understanding your company and its business objectives, and keeping those as your guiding stars when giving advice. The best in-house lawyers know how to go beyond pure legal theory, and combine it with practical, business-oriented advice to help the company move forward.

They Operate Well in a Fast-Paced Environment

In-house lawyers often tell me that one big difference from their experience in law firm practice is that things move at a much faster pace when in-house. There often simply isn’t time to do lengthy research and come up with the “perfect” answer to any given problem, and as in-house counsel you often have to make decisions with limited information.

When I went in-house, I remember how anxious I felt the first time I was hurriedly asked to advise on a proposed transaction with only a few minutes to review the relevant documents and highlight the important issues. This change in pace was a big adjustment for me, and will be for most attorneys coming from a law firm, where you usually have hours or days (and often the weekend!) to do research and come up with a perfectly worded memorandum giving the answer.

This is one reason I sometimes advise attorneys not to go in-house too soon. In situations where you have to give advice with limited information or a short turnaround, having several years of law firm training under your belt will give you a broader base of knowledge, as well as the confidence and judgement that comes with more years of experience.

They Jump in Where and When Needed

In law firms, lawyers tend to get siloed in a specific practice group. Within in-house legal departments, however, there is usually more of an “all hands on deck” mentality.

I have heard from many in-house lawyers (especially on smaller legal teams) that they are often given assignments in areas they have never encountered before and are tasked with “figuring it out” on the job. For example, a securities attorney I worked with joined a start-up and during her first week was asked to advise on an employment law matter that came up.

Being an effective in-house lawyer does not mean pretending to immediately know the answer to any legal question that arises (and in most cases you will have access to outside counsel for particularly complicated or thorny legal matters), but it does mean embracing new challenges and being willing to dive in and figure things out, even if the matter is not in your area of expertise.

I advise associates to make continuing education a priority and to put effort into developing a baseline of knowledge in all the areas relevant to their company (e.g., employment, litigation, commercial contracts, intellectual property, etc.). The best in-house lawyers go beyond what is merely expected and put in the time and effort to deliver more value to their organization. When you do make the jump to an in-house role, the above tips are things you can incorporate into your daily routine that will make you essential, respected, and will help you make an impact in your organization.

Erin Lum is a Partner with Empire Search Partners in San Francisco. Before joining Empire Search Partners, Erin was a Managing Director at Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc. and spent several years in private practice at Ropes & Gray LLP and at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, each in New York. To learn more about Empire Search’s law firm and in-house legal recruiting, visit our Legal Recruiting Services page. To see Empire Search’s featured in-house and law firm job opportunities, visit our Featured In-House & Law Firm Jobs page.