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What Makes a Great In-House Attorney

I have had the pleasure of getting to know many in-house lawyers. In my many discussions with them, I have learned about the joys—and concerns—of their practice. The learning curve is most steep when an in-house attorney is just making the transition from private practice.

Here are the key skills and capabilities that an in-house attorney needs to be successful that doesn’t get taught in law school, or in most firms:

Business comes first

At a firm, you succeed by having a grasp on your clients’ businesses—now, you need to really to start soaking in a genuine understanding of the business. At the heart of it all, that means understanding how the business makes money. How is your decision going to make the business more profitable? What decisions would cut the most costs?

An in-house attorney will need to dive deeper into the business environment in which the organization operates. This means learning about competitors, customers and the supply chain. If you have an industry specialty, you may already have a leg up in this. In your day-to-day practice, you are part of the operation of the business. There is no longer a “I didn’t draft that” mindset—it’s now yours!

To really get ahead, you will need to align your thinking with the company’s strategy. This is key if the legal team is going to maximize results for the company.

Fluency in your company’s culture

Legalese is fine in a law firm. Yes, your clients and other stakeholders won’t necessarily mind; but your end product now is primarily for non-lawyers. You want to avoid legalese.

The corporate world is dominated by the language “management” (the things that MBA’s learn). Become familiar with them so you understand what’s being said on important company projects. Great in-house lawyers are able to tailor the presentation of their advice for their audience, adding an additional challenge to present their answers in a form that is appropriate for, and easy to understand by, the particular audience.

Get to the point

With one main client, in-house lawyers should have an easier time prioritizing issues right?

Not necessarily. In-house lawyers need to clearly communicate to their sole client what the priorities are—matters with the biggest impact on the business. Remember that businesses don’t always wait for thorough advice, and may make a decision without any advice at all.

You will wear more than your “lawyer” hat

Your role will suddenly require more than just legal analysis. A business environment means stepping out of your comfort zone and potentially advising on new areas of law or stepping into other roles to help the business move ahead. You are expected to have good project management skills and to be able to work collaboratively as part of a wider team. You will likely have to shift from a competitive attitude to a more corporate, can-do attitude.

Don’t tell me what’s wrong—tell me what to do

Great laws are supposed to be great problem solvers. In-house lawyers must deliver advice that not only identifies a problem and answers a question, they must also become creative to overcome obstacles. This often means stepping away from abstract theories and doctrine and stepping towards practical action items.

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