in-house department management

Ten Things: Business Skills All In-House Lawyers Should Master

In my newest book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department, I include a section on the evolution of the role of in-house counsel.  I walk through the “dark ages” (lawyers in the basement alone and ignored) all the way to the current phase of “leaders/strategic thinkers” (using our lawyer superpowers to become valued partners to the business).   As I see it, the part of the role that has changed the most over the course of this evolution is the need for in-house lawyers to bring more to the table than just good legal skills.  Those are just your ticket to get into the circus.  To be successful, to be viewed as a partner to the business, and to get your seat at the big kids’ table with the filet mignon, you must also possess a set of key business skills.  How do I know this?  Well, I fumbled and bumbled my way through the process the hard way, i.e., I had to figure it out mostly on my own (but certainly – and thankfully – with the help of some key mentors along the way).  But I did figure it out and had a seat at the table as general counsel three times where I learned that the business had its own language (numbers) and way of doing things (business school) that were foreign to me given my legal background.  After thinking about it a bit, I realized that almost everyone at the table had a background in certain business skills that I did not possess.  Moreover, while everyone was more than happy to explain things if you asked; if you didn’t ask, they just assumed you were playing the same game they were playing, and it was on you to keep up with the class.  And, of course, like most lawyers, I was too proud to just up and announce that I had no clue about half the shit they were talking about.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to know I had to level up or I was soon destined for the little kids’ table and a nice Happy Meal of chicken nuggets.  So, level up I did.  And over the course of eight years of writing this blog, I have mentioned a wide assortment of business skills you need to succeed in the role.  But what I have not done is list all those skills in one post.  This edition of “Ten Things” corrects that oversight and sets out the ten essential business skills you must master to succeed as an in-house counsel.  And thanks to Marco Bijl, Head of Legal at Philips, for the idea:

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How to be a Practical In-House Lawyer

Lawyers, including in-house lawyers, have a well-deserved reputation for over-complicating things.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a sermon.  I am standing in the dock next to you, guilty as hell!  Still, I have spent time over the course of a long career in the law trying to figure out why this is.  Why is it that lawyers make things so hard on themselves and their clients?  I think it comes down to this: lawyers hate to be wrong. No, they fear being wrong, coupled with a belief that if you throw enough time, money, and words at a legal problem you can get to the answer or solve the problem.  This explains why lawyers write in a way that no mere mortal understands.  We have developed an uber-complex grammar structure that mystifies all but those foolhardy enough to plunge into the ocean of words, clauses, commas, “notwithstandings,” triple negatives, subparts, subparts to the subparts, and so on that make up modern-day contracts.  Or why our litigation process (in the US) is now largely an exercise in trying to get documents from the other side and prevent the other side from getting your documents and working overtime to get the court to sanction the other side for not giving you documents or for trying to unfairly get your documents, or… well, you get the point.

If you spend any time thinking about it, you begin to see why business leaders appreciate practical lawyers – lawyers who can get things done quickly and who can communicate in ways the business can understand.  The issue for in-house lawyers is that both demands tend to cut against all of our training and instincts, i.e., it’s hard!  Building “Rube Goldberg” machines is in our DNA.  Fortunately, it is possible to learn to be practical.  And, while not a hard and fast rule, my experience is that in-house lawyers who are practical in their approach and advice tend to thrive at companies and become sought-after partners to the business.  Those who are not, tend to be treated like lepers – feared and shunned.[1]  This edition of “Ten Things” brings the cure and discusses how to be a practical in-house lawyer:

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Ten Things: Ransomware – What In-House Counsel Need to Know

Back in January, I gave my list of essential issues for in-house counsel to pay attention to in 2021.  One of the items I listed was “phishing.”  Unfortunately, I was right to highlight it.  Phishing has been a hot topic in 2021.  More alarming, however, is that phishing’s good buddy ransomware has become an even bigger issue for in-house lawyers.  In the first half of 2021, ransomware attacks are up over 148% (with more attacks than the last ten years combined!).  The average ransom is now $200,000-$300,000 (with demands now exceeding $10,000,000.00) and businesses are down an average of 21 days whether they pay the ransom or not!  I don’t know about you, but being down for three weeks and getting stuck with a $300,000 bill to access my data would be a real problem for most companies.  To make matters worse, bad actors are getting more and more sophisticated, looking for new ways to gain access to corporate information systems.  The good news is that there are things you can do now as in-house counsel to help your company prepare for and limit, or even prevent, a ransomware attack.  Proactive in-house counsel is valuable in-house counsel, so taking steps now is an excellent way to demonstrate the value of the legal department.  This edition of “Ten Things” walks you through some of the steps you can take to mitigate the damage of a ransomware attack:

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Ten Things: Taking Advantage of Opportunities to Build Your In-House Career

Last month, my good friend, Jane McBride, and I presented a CLE to the Texas Bar in-house counsel section on how to “take advantage of opportunity.”  I, of course, had my list of ten things and Jane (as an in-house lawyer and ace career coach) brought her usual great ideas to the table as well.  The mixture of our ideas was a killer combination and made for an excellent presentation.  But, in the back of my mind, I kept coming back to my original list of ten and thinking that list would make a good “Ten Things” blog.  Not because there was anything wrong with the combined list, but because my original ten told the story of how I was able to advance my career as an in-house lawyer –  from that first day on the job at American Airlines to my last day as general counsel of Marketo (my third time in the general counsel chair).  My own personal experience is generally what I like to share with you in this blog.  While this post is aimed at those new to or a few years into the in-house counsel life, I think most of the lessons below apply to pretty much anyone at any point in their in-house career.  So, let’s get started.  This edition of “Ten Things” discusses how in-house lawyers can best take advantage of opportunities to advance their career:

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Ten Things: How In-House Lawyers Can Reduce Stress (in an Overly Stressful Job)

Throughout my legal career, I have been pretty fortunate when it comes to good health, both physically and mentally.  I have a knack for managing deadlines and have always been able to crank out work pretty much as needed.  Still, like everyone, there are times when I feel overwhelmed by the weight of what is on my plate. And, the higher up you are on the food chain, the more pressing the weight becomes as more and more people rely on you to come through (e.g., your team, fellow employees/clients, senior management, the board of directors, shareholders).  It can be a lot of pressure, which is just another word for stress.  For me, stress usually manifested itself in clenching my jaw (which required that I wear a splint) or migraine headaches.  The latter I can say without hesitation truly suck.  I know I am not alone, especially in the legal profession, as lawyers typically are more susceptible to stress and depression than most any other field.  The work and deadlines take their toll not only on the lawyer, but on their family as well.

Why am I focusing on all of this unpleasantness you ask?  Because I just realized that May is now mental health month.  And while Hallmark has not taken over the festivities (yet), it is an excellent time to take stock of our own mental health and, for in-house lawyers, that of the legal department as a whole.  Over the years, I have learned some things about preserving my mental health in an incredibly stressful job.  Most of the time I just sucked it up and kept any issues to myself, I realize now that that is exactly the wrong type of behavior.  I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.  But, this edition of “Ten Things” discusses some ways in-house lawyers can reduce stress with things I have done and still do, as well as things I wish I had done (or done more of). I’ll try not to get preachy, and I hope there are a few things here that will help you deal with the massive amount of crap that comes over the transom every day in the in-house world; a world where there is never enough money, time, or manpower to do the job:

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Ten Things: Getting Performance Reviews Right

Last year, I wrote about how to get the most out of regular 1:1 meetings; from the viewpoint of the manager and from that of the employee.  Those two posts turned out to be really popular.  I wasn’t surprised by that because I know (from experience) how often those meetings sucked. Not on purpose, but because neither I nor the other person – regardless of which chair I had at the time – really knew what we were supposed to be doing. Fortunately, I figured it out for the most part and was happy to share what I knew in those two posts.  So, let’s now turn our attention to another chronically sucky legal department process, the yearly performance review.  I hear you out there, “Wow, jackass. This would have been great information… last November when we were scheduling reviews!”  True.  It probably would have been.  But, allow me to retort. I say, and as you will see below, that now (March) is the time to start thinking about and preparing for performance reviews.  Actually, you should have started in January.  You’re already behind.  So, there. But, before you riot, unsubscribe, or start driving slowly by my house at night – like those jack-booted goons from the ABA’s publishing division making sure I am busy writing that book[1] – let me explain myself.  Performance reviews are a critical tool in the hands of every manager.  They are even more important in the current forced-remoteness of COVID-19.  Getting them right takes a lot of effort and thoughtful consideration and you cannot wait until the last minute to get started. This edition of “Ten Things” walks you through what you need to do and think about to create truly valuable and useful performance reviews:              (more…)

Ten Things: More Effective 1:1 Meetings (Manager View)

In my last post, I dealt with the importance and effectiveness of 1:1 meetings from the viewpoint of the employee.[1]  As promised, I will now discuss 1:1 meetings from the viewpoint of the manager. The first thing you should do is go back and re-read the last post because pretty much everything on that list applies to the manager side of the equation as well, either in terms of understanding where your employee is coming from or common sense tactics that make for better 1:1 meetings regardless of which side of the table you sit.  Second, if you have never had any training on how to conduct 1:1 employee meetings do not feel bad.  You are not alone!  Coming up through the ranks of in-house lawyers, my only experience with 1:1 meetings were the ones I attended as an employee.  Some managers were really good at it and some were pretty bad.  Since most companies don’t spend a lot of time training people (especially in-house lawyers) on how to manage people, when I became a manager and started holding my own 1:1 meetings the key, for me, was to mimic the things I thought prior managers did well and not do the things I thought sucked.  Over time, and with a little research on the side, I like to think I developed a process for pretty effective 1:1 meetings (though if you worked for me in the past you may disagree!). Regardless, since it is my blog, I get to at least pretend those 1:1’s were awesome.  And now it’s time to share that big bag of awesomeness with you. This edition of “Ten Things” shares my tips on how to host effective 1:1 meetings with your direct reports:

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Ten Things: More Effective 1:1 Meetings (Employee View)

A few months back I took some swings at meetings in general, i.e. Escaping Meeting Hell.  But, as I noted, not all meetings are “bad” and many are necessary, especially for in-house counsel.  Of the meetings in-house counsel must attend, none should rank higher than your 1:1 meetings with your boss.  You may think it is just more administrative bullshit you have to make time for during your already crowded week – and you would be somewhat correct.  But, it is important administrative bullshit and the administrative part of being an in-house lawyer is just as critical as the substantive legal work.[1]  Not only is a one-on-one meeting a way to keep your manager informed of what is going on, it is also a key ingredient of the “soup” that is served up as part of career development and advancement.  So, grab your spoon and get ready to dig in as this edition of “Ten Things” discusses what you can do to have more effective 1:1 meetings with your boss:

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Ten Things: Essential Issues for In-House Counsel (2020 Edition)

When I was a kid there was a Saturday morning cartoon show called Sealab 2020.  I remember thinking that was a long, long way off and wondering how old I would be when 2020 rolled around – – and whether by then there would really be a giant lab on the bottom of the sea with 250 oceanauts fighting sea monsters and battling pollution.  But, here we are; it’s 2020!  I am officially old(ish) and, sadly, sea monsters go un-battled under the ocean (unless you count Wicked Tuna), but pollution on (and in) the high seas runs rampant.   Triple bummer.  What does this have to do with “Ten Things” you ask?  Nothing other than a little nostalgia and the “2020” reference as this is my first post of the New Year.  As usual, we’ll start the year with my list of essential issues for in-house lawyers to pay attention to over the coming months.  When I was general counsel, I started every year thinking about the “big picture” and what risks (good or bad) might be coming down the pike that I needed to be aware of as an in-house lawyer.  It’s not an easy task as there is so much “out there” that can have an impact on your company and legal department.  Still, it’s better to try to anticipate some than to ignore all.  So, once again, I have sat down, read a lot, and thought hard about different issues that will likely have some substantial impact – positive or negative – on in-house lawyers and for which a little bit of preparation or pro-active attention can make you a hero vs. someone caught flat-footed.  With the usual caveat that I have no crystal ball showing me what’s important, here my “Ten Things” 2020 edition of essential issues for in-house counsel:

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Ten Things: The “Strategic” In-House Lawyer

As we come to the end of 2019, I wanted to write about an issue I hear a lot about.  In fact, in many of my conversations with in-house counsel, this is the number one topic, i.e., “how do I become a strategic in-house lawyer?”  While sometimes this is a self-generated concern, it arises mostly because someone (the CEO, the General Counsel, or whomever) told the lawyer during an annual review or another setting that they need to be more “strategic” with their thinking.  Sadly, that is typically about the extent of it, that is, “be more strategic.  Now go forth and sin no more.” From personal experience, I can tell you that receiving such a command from your boss without more is about as useful as a mud fence in a rainstorm.  But, as many in-house lawyers are learning, it is not enough to be an excellent lawyer with deep legal skills and institutional knowledge.  That just gets you to the table.  The business wants more out of its in-house legal department, especially from the general counsel and other senior members of the legal team.  They want you to be “part of the business” and they want you to be “strategic.”  Unfortunately, no one teaches you how to be strategic in law school – at least not when I was there.  For most, you just sort of figure it out as you go along.  That was my method.  I cannot tell you that I figured out the magical incantation that makes you a strategic thinker, but I have learned many relevant lessons over the years.  This edition of “Ten Things” shares my thoughts on how to become a strategic in-house lawyer:

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