November 01, 2006

Practical Tips for Young Lawyers Going In-House

3 min

“Practical Tips for Young Lawyers Going In-House,” by Jonathan L. Pompan, published in The Young Lawyer, Vol. 11 No. 2, November 2006.

Going in-house at a corporation or nonprofit? The role of in-house lawyers is distinctly different from that of young lawyers at law firms and government agencies. Here are five practical tips to help you make a successful transition.

1. Understand Your Client

A lawyer for a corporation represents the corporation—not its officers, employees, or shareholders. Yet, in taking care of the day-to-day business, your “client” is represented by various of these individuals acting on its behalf. Get to know these individuals and their roles. Build a positive relationship with your colleagues. Learn the business and industry of the organization. Even though you’re “just the lawyer,” it’s your industry too.

2. Know Your Role

In-house legal departments exist largely to substitute more cost-effective internal legal resources for increasingly expensive outside legal services. To most effectively assist your client on business issues, always try to get involved in a project early. You are more likely to be able to provide meaningful counsel if you are well informed and share your perspective from the beginning. Also, once you are viewed as part of the team, you will gain the confidence and trust of your client. Over the long run, if you align your legal skills and competencies with the needs of the company, you will be able to adapt to its evolving legal needs.

In-house lawyers in all corporations (whether public, private, or nonprofit) will be exposed to corporate governance and accounting issues as much as routine business issues. When working on these issues, remember that you are a lawyer first and an employee second. Your responsibilities under the law, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the professional responsibility rules of your state bar will likely be different from other employees’. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to seek outside counsel.

3. Deliver Results and Add Value

Clients want in-house lawyers who can provide competent, concise advice with a strong understanding of the business goals. Always look to add value to the corporation. These opportunities may include taking on an additional legal niche to fill a resource gap; building processes for routine matters such as creating templates, policies, or procedural manuals; making presentations to company employees; participating in training or education initiatives on legal issues of which all should be aware; or assuming nonlegal–related assignments on top of your legal duties.

4. Communicate and Listen

Successful in-house lawyers are able to navigate the divide between the legal department and the business side through their communication skills, mainly by avoiding speaking and writing in legalese. Think about your client’s business perspective. Remember that you have the advantage of being able to talk to your client face-to-face—make the most of it.

5. Develop Relationships with Other Lawyers

Cultivate relationships with other lawyers within and outside your organization—particularly those who are also in-house—for networking goals. You may not have the same networking opportunities as associates in private practice or in government practice. Yet there are local and national organizations specifically for in-house lawyers and many ABA Sections have committees specifically for in-house lawyers. Trade associations are another terrific source in which your company’s nonlegal staff can be active, and where you may find a legal committee or action team dealing with the issues you work on.

In-house practice is different from working at a law firm or in the government, especially for young lawyers. The rewards you reap from your hands-on experience working in-house will go a long way in helping you succeed, no matter what type of organization you work for later in your career.