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First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers (part 1)

Musings on the critical importance of building relationships of mutual respect, understanding and trust with the business side

Whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.

—Man of La Mancha

As a former law firm partner who now recruits lawyers, I regularly find myself in the always-fascinating position of counseling legal search clients and candidates who at one time had only been my law firms’ clients. As in-house clients during my law firm practice years, these individuals were gods to me – largely unknowable, possibly infallible and greatly imbued with the Power of Life and Death, at least over my law firm career. As my search candidates and clients, I have been very pleasantly surprised to find that these “gods” have feet of clay, and that they truly appreciate confidential career planning advice and counsel.

Many of these lawyers have already checked all the boxes with regards to the majority of substantive skills required for a given position. The difference between the candidate who walks away with the GC job and the also-ran — and the difference between the GC who is successful in her role and she who is not — often comes down not to law school, clerkship or law firm pedigree. Instead, it generally comes down to soft skills, EQ or the ability to build critical relationships of mutual respect, understanding and trust within an organization, especially with internal clients. You know, the dreaded “business side.”

Profit centers vs. cost centers

GCs and, indeed, all in-house counsel are increasingly being called upon to act as a consigliere to their internal clients. They don’t need to be walking legal reference guides, since there are websites for that. Rather, they must help ensure that the best interests of the business are advanced in balancing potential legal risks and potential economic gain for the organization.

Law firm lawyers call me every day saying they want to go in-house, or so they think, often based on unrealistic expectations regarding the “ease” of in-house life as compared to law firm life (although that is another column entirely). As I often explain to these law firm lawyers, one of the fundamental differences between being a law firm lawyer and an in-house counsel is going from being a profit center to being a cost center. And all law firm billers are a profit center, no matter how low they may think they are on the totem pole at their firm.

Profit centers, to put it delicately, are primarily required to focus on taking those actions necessary to bring in revenue, by whatever means necessary. Infrastructure is built up around them by the organization in order to support them in so doing. Rainmakers keep the lights on. Warm and fuzzy bedside manner? Optional. They are, and are supposed to be, focused with a laser-like intensity on making it rain at their law firm or company. All depends upon them, so necessary cost centers are created on behalf of profit centers, like staplers.

When you go in-house, as I advise eager law firm lawyers, you’re the stapler. And then I watch their faces fall.

Contributing Author

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Sonya Olds Som

Sonya Olds Som is a managing director in Major, Lindsey & Africa's Chicago office and is primarily responsible for leading networking, business development and marketing...

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