Going in-house: Advice from the top

For young lawyers looking to land a senior in-house counsel position at some point in their careers, there’s no better source for advice than today’s law department leaders.

Each year, we interview experienced general counsel from a variety of industries, and we always ask them: What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?

Here’s a roundup of the suggestions our 2018 GC profile participants had for aspiring senior in-house counsel:

 

  1. Always demonstrate excellence.

“Every interaction you have involves the client. You need to do your best to be at your best at all times. It doesn’t mean you can’t let your hair down. But there is no off switch when you’re interacting with your client the entire time you’re at work.” — W. Scott Nehs, General Counsel at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association

Nehs also strongly recommends lawyers work on their people skills up and down the corporate ladder. “It’s great that you can manage up and keep your boss happy, but it’s equally or more great to know the names of the people who deliver the mail. It all matters. Engaging with people and taking the time to invest in them, knowing their names and making eye contact, are especially important for the in-house role.”

  1. Learn how to really work with people.

“Spend time understanding people and how to work with them, how to manage them and how to be a person that other people can work with, understand and respect. These are not skills that they look for when accepting people into law school, nor do they teach them. I’m not just talking about management of lawyers and clients, but learning how to work with, deal with and counsel people.” — Luis Machado, General Counsel at CTS Corp.

Machado also says lawyers should appreciate the details behind their companies’ products or services. “It’s important and you have to treat it with care and respect. Ask questions and understand why things work the way they do. Never assume you know something.”

  1. Be a generalist.

“Young lawyers who go into private practice or even large in-house legal departments tend to become specialized in one area of practice, but my advice is to get as many experiences as you can. Be a generalist because, as a GC, while you don’t have to be an expert in everything, you have to know enough to spot an issue.” — Diana Chafey, General Counsel at The Warranty Group

Chafey also says young lawyers have to assume, that as GCs, they will likely lead a team. “So don’t neglect developing management and leadership skills. Developing trust and loyalty among team members will be a critical part of your job, and will be necessary to build high-performing teams.”

  1. Learn the business so you’re more than just a legal advisor.

 “The GC role can be a mile wide and an inch deep. Get exposure to as many things in your career as you can. Learn the businesses you’re supporting so that you can contribute beyond that of a legal advisor.” — John Albright, Chief Legal Officer at Hub International

Albright also says that while it’s rare for someone to want to do something that is flat-out illegal, if it does happen, those are easier discussions to have. “Good in-house lawyers are trying to pave a path that also reduces risk. Focus on influencing and educating your clients about reducing risk and working collaboratively to get to the right decisions rather than lecturing them on legal statutes.”

  1. Go in-house early in your career and don’t be picky about your title.

“Get in-house in whatever position you can as early in your career as possible. I see a lot of lawyers go to a law firm, become partner and feel like that has made them good enough to be a GC. But executive recruiters will say, ‘we want someone who has been a GC or at least has been in a senior in-house role.’” — D. Cameron Findlay, General Counsel at Archer Daniels Midland

Findlay says a young lawyer should get in, and not worry about the title or how much money they will make. “Just get in, put your head down and work hard—then work your way up through the department.”

Findlay’s advice echoes that of Mike Evers recent column in Corporate Counsel magazine titled “Beware of Making Partner.” In the op-ed, Evers also recommends that lawyers with their sights set on an in-house career move from their law firm early—even if it means taking a junior level title to start or a pay cut.

Findlay goes on to say it’s important for young in-house lawyers not to get pigeonholed as the expert in only one area of law. “Avoid that by letting your boss know you’re willing to take on additional responsibilities. Don’t turn your nose up at something because it doesn’t seem worthy of you. Jump in with both feet. That will help you be a great generalist.”