Advice for young in-house lawyers: Understanding the value of questions

If questions are poetry, young lawyers should be poets when joining a legal department

 “Answers can only aspire to be important. Questions remain forever relevant, forever eloquent. Answers are science, questions are poetry. We can learn so much more from poetry than science.”
 

--Guillermo del Toro, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011  

Lawyers—particularly the young in-house variety—can surprisingly learn a lot from poetry.

While young lawyers do not traditionally go directly into corporate law departments, many companies are beginning to bypass law firms by recruiting recent graduates. Unfortunately, traditional law school education does not adequately prepare recent graduates for the unforeseen importance of business decisions, the issues associated with competing internal departments vying for finite resources and a job that has more to do with negotiating minute business details than analyzing statutes or case law.

As the first in a three-part series focusing on young in-house lawyers, this article highlights how some of the foregoing challenges can be mitigated by understanding the value of questions. In particular, it’s essential for young in-house lawyers to recognize the benefits of asking industry-specific questions, asking document template questions and asking questions about how the legal department is perceived internally.

 

Ask Industry-Specific Questions

The most important issue —above any legal issue—is learning the organization’s industry, the associated lexicon (including acronyms) and how the different stakeholders fit within the industry. Because of this, young in-house lawyers need to ask pointed questions about business operations, the associated roles and responsibilities of each department, and any necessary technical or methodological information. Surprisingly, this information may be hard to find. Therefore, young lawyers should:

  • Draft and maintain a master list of questions
  • Determine who could possibly answer these questions within their organization
  • Start sending emails, scheduling meetings, and buying as many lunches as it takes to internalize the relevant answers.

Without this knowledge, a young lawyer will have difficulty asking responding to industry-specific complexities and their interconnected legal distinctions.

 

Ask Document Template Questions

It is also inevitable that a young in-house lawyer will consistently use, and depend on, document templates. However, in order to provide more than just a “starting point,” young lawyers must question and analyze these templates. First, you need to locate these documents (easier said than done). You would be surprised how many extremely useful documents are “hidden” on your colleague’s desktop or saved in some random file folder on a department’s shared network. Second, young lawyers need to understand the breadth of their template database (i.e. scan or quickly read all the folders and subfolders). I cannot count how many times I’ve spent hours working on an agreement only to find that a substantially similar document already exists. Finally, young lawyers need to analyze the purpose of significant provisions within these templates. By finding—and learning the historic reasoning behind these provisions—a lawyer can determine the range of risk a company has historically been willing to accept, gain valuable answers to complex problems previously addressed and learn information that can provide a significant competitive advantage.

 

Ask Perception Questions

Understanding internal perceptions is also essential. Depending on a company’s culture, the legal department can be viewed in many different ways. The department could be viewed as a necessary evil, trusted advisors or possibly as gatekeepers to information and authorizations. Aligning the appropriate designation with the appropriate departments and decision makers is extremely important. These perceptions will almost certainly affect workload, expected timelines and an assortment of other day-to-day factors.

In particular, young lawyers need to make it a significant priority to ask their colleagues, legal superiors and trusted non-legal employees how they think their legal department is perceived within the organization. Not only will this give a young lawyer the chance to change internal perceptions, it will provide the basis to foresee problems, understand unexplainable personal quirks and preemptively modify  behavior. Inevitably, this information will help a young lawyer develop the interpersonal skills that are necessary to successfully interact with their business colleagues.

 

Conclusion

Overall, basic questions are important to the young in-house lawyer. They transform static legal principles into informative guidance and knowledge that can empower young lawyers to answers complex questions, make decisions and ultimately evaluate risk. 

Contributing Author

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Jason Mosley

Jason Mosley is corporate counsel for an industry leading Software-as-a-Service technology company. He holds a J.D., M.B.A., and LL.M in corporate governance. 

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