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The inside track

11 Jul 2019 / Employment Print

The inside track

These days, in-house lawyers make up over 20% of our profession. Working in-house is now a perfectly viable alternative to a career in private practice.

While many in-house lawyers are refugees from law firms (and a significant proportion are barristers), an increasing number are starting their careers in-house, having eschewed private practice altogether.

There are some real advantages to working in-house. We don’t have to market to our clients or chase them for unpaid bills. We usually don’t have to engage in time-billing – the bane of many a law firm lawyer’s life.

However, it is not an easy route, and in-house lawyers face many challenges that our private practice colleagues do not. Often, the in-house lawyer has to face those challenges alone, without the backup of a firm full of colleagues.

As with every career, it suits some, but not others. But when it works, it is a wonderful alternative, offering an exciting and varied workload and the opportunity to work with, and learn from, non-legal colleagues across the business.

I wrote about my top ten tips for in-house lawyers a while ago (‘Wishing well’, July 2017 Gazette, p56). Having discussed those tips with countless colleagues since then, it became clear that I needed to supplement that list. The tips below are aimed both at colleagues who are considering a move in-house, as well as those of us who are a bit longer in the tooth.

Be efficient

Let’s face it. Your ‘to do’ list is growing faster than you could ever hope to clear it. You need to use every trick in the book to help you to do a better job more efficiently. Enter technology: if you have the budget for a full-featured enterprise-level case-management system, good for you.

For the other 90% of us, all is not lost. There are some excellent free tools available to help you. These range from simple, but powerful, work-management tools like Trello (www.trello.com) to the functionality of Google’s free online office suite, GSuite (gsuite.google.com).

There are also many excellent online articles on productivity for in-house lawyers. It is worth reviewing some of those, especially for tips on handling information overload and slaying the email dragon.

Monkey on your back

Many of us work in businesses that carry out customer satisfaction surveys. So why don’t you do the same? You can create a free SurveyMonkey survey and use it to get feedback from your colleagues/clients in your organisation.

When doing this, you need to press the pause button on your ego. If you want valuable feedback, you will need to accept criticism with an open mind. Not only will you gather helpful advice, but you will have sent a powerful message to your colleagues/clients that you are listening to them and are there to help them.

The power of ‘no’

Having listened to your internal clients, you also need to recognise that, sometimes, the best response you can give them is ‘no’. That doesn’t mean that you say ‘no’ to everything, but it does mean that you select and prioritise your work carefully.

If your internal client wants you to join a two-hour meeting, just in case something legal might come up, that is likely a poor use of your time and the company’s money. Say ‘no’ to your colleague, but promise them that if something legal does come up, you will be on standby to join the meeting

Learn the language

Lawyers operate with words, but businesses operate with numbers. As in-house lawyers, we must learn how to understand key ‘business numbers’ like the accounts and business-performance metrics. There are many excellent online courses that provide the training we need for this (for example, online one-day ‘finance for non-financial people’ courses).

In-house lawyers also need to grasp performance metrics for the legal function. That may be as simple as tracking every file you open, how long it takes to complete it, how many files you open and close each month, and how much that would have cost if done externally (for example, by applying a notional hourly rate or fixed-fee per file). If you want a seat at the business table, you need to speak the business language, and that language is numbers.

Watch your budget

Remember that the in-house legal function is a support service for the profit-making parts of the business. As such, it is a cost – like electricity and stationery. You will likely have a fixed or, at least, an informal budget to deliver the legal service for the year. Spend it wisely. Make sure you maximise your use of free online resources, such as Lexology, Getting the Deal Through, Mondaq, Bailii and others.

Consider using smaller boutique law firms instead of the biggest commercial firms. Build up libraries of legal advice and template agreements for future use. Attend CPD talks provided by law firms. Expand your network of in-house colleagues in other organisations, and share templates with them (suitably anonymised, of course).

These are all ways to show that your organisation is getting the biggest bang-for-its-buck on its legal spend. And, of course, you should be able to use clear legal department metrics to report on this.

Remember your independence

As the workload grows and budgets tighten, in-house lawyers often feel that they can’t stand in the way of key corporate projects, even if they have concerns. No one wants to be the negative voice, the ‘naysayer’.

But remember that you are not the same as everyone else. You are a member of a separate, distinct profession with its own rules and ethics. No job is worth compromising your independence or your integrity for. But it doesn’t have to. Turn your independence into a virtue. In any given meeting, there will often be a lot of ‘yes men’ (and women) and group think. Your voice as the honest, independent devil’s advocate may well be the most valuable voice in the room.

Build a team

This tip seems obvious if you are in the lucky position of either already being in an in-house team or having sufficient budget to create one. But even if you are a sole in-house lawyer with no hiring budget, fear not. If you can’t build an internal team, build an external one.

Find other like-minded in-house lawyers in your region, whether they are in your industry sector or not. Set up a WhatsApp group, meet for coffee, share thoughts and ideas. Welcome to your new team!

Educate yourself

The worlds of law and business are changing at an exponential rate. GDPR, Brexit, artificial intelligence, and a million other topics vie for our attention. A good in-house lawyer will identify any issues that could have an impact on their organisation and will keep up to date with them. There is a wealth of cutting-edge information freely available online on every imaginable topic.

There are daily updates from Gazette.ie, Lexology, podcasts, blogs, and an unending selection of lectures and talks available on YouTube. Make sure that you set aside at least 30 minutes every day for education and self-improvement. Never stop learning.

Contracts – a primer

As an in-house lawyer, contracts are likely the lifeblood of your work. With that in mind, it is worth focusing on them. Perhaps you could revise all your organisation’s contracts, bringing them up to date and giving them a similar look and feel. Once that is done, you could create a contracts playbook for your sales team, so that they understand what is in the contracts and which parts they can negotiate.

You might follow that with a programme of training, not just on the contracts themselves, but also on key issues, such as data protection, risk management and contract lifecycle management (CLM). Not only will your colleagues appreciate this, but it is another good way to demonstrate your continuing added value to the organisation.

Speaking of CLM, that’s another way that you can add value. If you record all the key elements of a contract in a database (whether it is an Excel spreadsheet or a dedicated CRM system), you can be the person who flags upcoming contract expiry and negotiation dates to the sales team, and point out potential up-selling opportunities.

Risky business

Regardless of your organisation’s business sector, risk is a key issue that needs to be properly tracked and managed. In-house lawyers are particularly good at this, as we are trained to identify risk and find ways to mitigate it or work around it.

If your organisation does not already have a risk function, perhaps you could offer to set it up and run it. There are many online resources that will help you to understand risk management and how to set up a good risk register for your organisation.

Even if your organisation has an established risk function, you can still contribute in the areas of legal and regulatory risk. Not only will this be a way of linking with colleagues across the organisation, but it will also give you a deeper understanding of the business. Lastly, it is another great way to show your added value and to place you at the heart
of the business.

Bonus tip – mind your mind

Life as an in-house lawyer can be wonderful and varied, but also stressful and lonely in equal measure. There are never-ending demands across a range of topics, often with unreasonable deadlines and even
more unreasonable expectations.

From time to time, we all feel unloved and under-appreciated by our business colleagues. It would be easy for an in-house lawyer to buckle under the pressure, particularly if he or she works as a sole lawyer. Remember that no matter how heavy your workload is, you need to make time for yourself. You need to be able to switch off and leave the emails and ‘to do’ lists behind you.

It is critical to schedule time for self-care, whether that involves exercise, hobbies, or something more obviously relaxing like spending time with family or mindfulness. Don’t view that time as avoiding work or shirking your responsibilities. You will be better able to tackle your ‘to do’ list and be a much more effective advisor for your organisation if you are relaxed and well-rested.

Also, do not underestimate the power of talking with other in-house colleagues in your network. While they may not have instant solutions for you, you may be surprised how many of them have been through similar situations and can relate to how you feel. As the saying goes: ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’.

So go ahead and halve your problems!

Richard O’Sullivan
Richard O’Sullivan
Richard O’Sullivan is general counsel at Global Shares, Cork