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Inside Experts: 10 pieces of advice from a seasoned in-house lawyer

Tips and insight for current and future in-house counsel

My career has not followed the well-trodden path of many lawyers who have gone from law school to law firm to in-house. I have worked as an in-house lawyer in jobs with both counsel and non-counsel titles, reporting to managers both inside and outside the law department. My “road less travelled” career path has broadened my view of how in-house lawyers can position themselves within a company and which ways work the best. I have also learned a little about how to develop oneself into a top performing in house lawyer.

For my first in-house job, I was the sole lawyer at a digital imaging company in Beltsville, Maryland. My title was director of contracts and proposals because Maryland had not yet made an in-house exception for out of state lawyers. I reported directly to the partners who owned the company, two divorced Baby Boomers who ran their business by acting first and asking questions later. Though the company was small enough that I didn’t feel in over my head, I was in my mid 20’s and didn’t feel like I brought enough experience. I left when I found out the company was up for sale.

A couple months before that company declared bankruptcy, I left to become general counsel for a government contractor inside the Capital Beltway.  The president and sole owner of the company was a disabled veteran who had lobbied long and hard for set asides for disabled veteran owned companies, and the company was on the verge of reaping a huge amount of business. Excitement was in the air. I immediately struck up a friendship with the vice president of finance who was the president’s closest confidant. The company grew and profits rolled in.

The owner started splitting his time between the company and his newly acquired mansion off the Florida coast, leaving a vacuum in leadership. A succession of business development executives came and went. The finance vice president and I had become vestiges from an earlier stage in the company’s development, when setting up infrastructure had been the focus. I suppose it would have been palatable if I had owned a stake in the company. But I didn’t. After a few years, I resigned to become a stay-at-home dad, and the finance vice president later left as well.

4. Turn hierarchy into collegiality. If you are working as a staff lawyer in a law department, look for opportunities to make your reporting into the department as “flat” as possible, by volunteering for committees, taking on special projects, and offering to help other lawyers in your department.

5. Establish lasting relationships with your internal clients. Too often, lawyers restrict their friendships to other lawyers. But former clients who have moved on to other jobs will frequently hook you up with new career opportunities. In other words, learn to love the sales people. It will be worth it.

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Eric Esperne

Eric Esperne is counsel for Dell Services and is located in Canton, Mass. He has more than 15 years experience as in-house counsel for government,...

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