In-house counsel: the essential business advisor

Too often, people ask me what it takes to go in-house. It seems as though it’s this coveted society that’s difficult to tap into, but once you’re in, you normally never leave.  

What makes this career a dream? It’s the business side of it. I think of myself primarily as a business advisor, with a legal degree mixed in, who assists in keeping the business decisions, both legally and ethically sound. 

But how can you do it successfully? 

You must immerse yourself in the business to be able to be an effective in-house counsel. You need to be able to comprehend what your company does in order to understand what you are protecting, foresee future risks, and understand how to give alternative solutions as needed. 

Lowering risk tolerance happens when you think of not only the right now, but also the what’s next. 

So, let’s dive in.

Why does in-house counsel need to partner with the business?

Through training, education, and experience, lawyers can bring a unique skill set to the table — by objectively analyzing a situation and proposing various solutions depending on interchangeable facts. Attorneys who go in-house need to understand that being intimately intertwined in the business will lead to the greatest reward not only for personal growth, but ultimately, for the success of the business. Many successful in-house lawyers have an acute understanding that the decisions they make are focused on long-term goals for their client, not just short-term “band-aids.” They have the unique ability to not just look at the trees, but see the forest as a whole.   

One of the key incentives of going in-house for most attorneys is to be able to work collaboratively with the business to solve problems and come up with solutions. We come in-house to see the full picture, not just one aspect. The more we know, the better we can help. 

If you were to ask an in-house counsel how much advice they give during the day that is strictly legal, you may be surprised at the answer. Being in-house, we have key information on so many aspects of the business from corporate information, operations, financials, etc.  We take all of that into consideration to be able to render sound advice with the information we have at the time. 

There are so many times we give advice that is more business-related, and employees come to us because they know we have so much information about the business as a whole that our advice is going to take into consideration everyone’s thought processes from the CEO to sales to the managers working on the project. They all play a key role in giving us the knowledge needed to render solid solutions. 

Everyone has their own goals on what they want out of their career. Personally, I love to learn and grow. I do it by listening and understanding points of view from all the stakeholders within the business. Sure, I am a lawyer by degree, but that is only a sliver of who I am as a person. 

I am more fulfilled in my career now than I have ever been and I can directly correlate that to being able to have meaningful discussions daily with all types of people. These people are not just lawyers but are project managers, advertisers, sales, executives, and the like. I am a firm believer in the more you know, the more you grow. If you sit in your office all day redlining contracts and reviewing documents, yes, you will be doing the task at hand, but you will be missing out on so many opportunities and experiences, that you will only be doing yourself a disservice in the long run. 

So, immerse yourself in the business!

How to immerse yourself in the business 

Lesson number one: listen. You should listen to everyone from the interns to the CEO. You need to understand people’s obstacles, pain points, and successes which will help to connect the dots to the big picture. Then, when an issue presents itself, you won’t be surprised and can hit the ground running on finding solutions. 

Second, attend meetings with the attitude of how the discussion today can help propel the business to move forward next month, next year, and so on. If you want to learn more about what a specific department does, ask to attend a reoccurring department meeting.  If you want to understand customer concerns, attend customer calls, or at the very least, attend internal meetings regarding the same. 

I can’t emphasize this enough: the better you understand the business, the better business advisor you will be. 

Here’s a list of a few things in-house counsels should learn about: 

  • The products and services the company provides.
  • How the products and services are created.
  • The trends and competitors in the market.
  • The financials.
  • The crucial risks, policies, and procedures.
  • The company’s main priorities for the short-term to long-term goals.

There is always an opportunity to learn, you just need to seek out various ways to do so.  So, let’s see where you can start.

How to acquire the necessary business skills

Some in-house counsels already come into a company with essential business skills — whether they learned them in the undergrad or through prior work experience before law school.  However, it’s always good to maintain these skills. 

Here are a few suggestions that lawyers can take to both acquire and maintain their business skills to become effective, well-rounded in-house counsel. 

  • First, some of the skills acquired in law school will be the groundwork for your success. The ability to analyze a complex situation, spot the facts and issues, and clearly communicate the analysis will be immensely valuable because you will be able to articulate the risks to enhance the company’s goals. 
  • Second, build an internal and external network of contacts that will assist you in providing well-rounded advice. The internal network can come from various departments within the company — from development to sales to human resources. Meanwhile, the external network will come from outside counsel to various other in-house counsels from other companies.  The more you learn from all these contacts, the more effective you will be. 
  • Last, but certainly not least, enhance your skillset through various certifications and additional business courses, which will allow you to grow into a better business partner to advise the company.

To sum up, being an in-house counsel can be extremely beneficial and rewarding if you know your way around, learn everything there is to know about the business and people who operate it and don’t shy away from using the skills you already have as a base to build upon. 

Remember: the more you know about the company, the better business advisor you will be! There are so many things to know. I am still learning every day. But at the end of the day, it is the most rewarding, happy, and fulfilled I have ever felt in my career. Feel free to reach out with any questions. 

Good luck!

*This article is an expert guest post as part of Loio’s guest blogging campaign. Loio has preserved the contributor’s authentic writing style.

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