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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.

In my next job, I negotiated software licenses at a multi-national telecommunications company that infamously went bankrupt and sent the CEO to prison. There I had two reporting lines: one solid line into the technology law department, the other a dotted line into the strategic procurement group led by finance executives who were driven by numbers and not much else. To blur the lines even more, my internal clients would often side with the software vendors in negotiations. I learned that, within the same company, different groups can have diametrically opposed interests. I was never quite able to navigate between them without hitting an occasional rock.

Next I moved to yet another multi-national telecommunications provider headquartered in the U.K. (which, as luck would have it, also eventually went bankrupt.) My title was senior corporate counsel and my job sat squarely in the law department. I reported to a vice president who had an Ivy League degree but no interest in either the then-burgeoning Internet industry or in being a manager. After a while we stopped talking to each other. It was the only time in my career that I have not gotten on well with a boss. To improve my situation, I volunteered for and was appointed head of the law department’s IT Enablement committee, which reported directly to the general counsel. I also eventually made a case for switching my direct reporting line over to another vice president in the department who saw me as a good lawyer and an asset.

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.

If I could turn back the hands of time to the beginning of my career, when I was trying to strategize my career path as an in-house lawyer, this is the advice I would give to myself:

1. Don’t go to work for a company just because you think it might be the next Facebook. If you do, good luck, but you aren’t necessarily building a career. At the beginning of your career, or even in the middle, what you want is to find a mentor, usually a general counsel or someone who has worked as an in-house lawyer for a while. Being a successful in-house lawyer is about responding to any and all situations with the right demeanor, meaning keeping your cool and figuring out how to respond the best way you can with what’s available to you.

2. Don’t worry too much about specializing in a field of law. Specialization can do more to restrict career advancement than help it. Instead, specialize in knowing your company.

3. Understand that lawyers make lousy personnel managers, but they can make good mentors. When it comes to salaries, bonuses, vacation, conflicts with other employees, managing lawyers would rather run and hide under their desks than talk to their direct reports. If you have the opportunity to report to a CEO or CFO or another business side manager, while maintaining clear and complete decision making power over legal matters, take it, it’s golden.

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.

6. Make lateral moves to non-counsel jobs early in your career. The longer you wait, the more you will get typecast as a lawyer. In my mind, the choice comes down to asking yourself, “Can I go through life without people thinking of me as a lawyer?” I have never been able to answer honestly answer “Yes” to that question.

7. Accept that all companies suffer from dysfunction. Business rarely happens in some precise, methodical kind of way (unlike the law). It took me years to figure that out.

8. If your company is being acquired, it’s probably time to get out of Dodge. In-house lawyers are not assets. We are advisors. When the people we are advising go away, we go away.

9. Dress the part. Business people expect in-house lawyers to look and dress like the lawyers they see on TV. Watch reruns of “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.”

10. “Don’t chase the points.” Last, I will quote from Phil Simms, the former New York Giants quarterback and now NFL commentator, who says “don’t chase the points” when he sees a team going for it on 4th down instead of kicking a field goal. It’s the same with your career. Don’t chase the money. Develop good contacts, learn how business works, and enjoy being a lawyer.

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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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