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Inhouse Legal Counsel – 2023 Checklist

Reading time: 10 mins

Inhouse legal counsel are qualified lawyers that provide legal services to their employer. Inhouse lawyers often have a high work volume and need to be across various areas of law.

The last decade has really cemented the in-house legal profession as its own career stream. The career path of an in-house counsel can take unexpected turns and it is important to identify and develop those qualities and skills to help you succeed as an inhouse counsel in 2023.

This checklist is designed to help you to succeed in your career as inhouse legal counsel.

The checklist is as follows:

  1. The importance of building relationships
  2. Understand the direction of the company
  3. Keep informed on legal trends
  4. Be commercial in your approach to problem-solving
  5. Is there a better way to deliver inhouse legal services?

The importance of building relationships as an inhouse lawyer

Building a strong network is key to advancing your career as inhouse counsel. Building professional relationships with the right people can be the difference between the business:

  • Seeing your role and advice as a necessary evil and part of a process; versus
  • Seeking out your advice and incorporating your recommendations as part of decision-making and implementation.

As an in-house lawyer, building relationships can be challenging. However, here are some tips to speed up the process.

Inhouse legal counsel

Here are seven things that you can start doing right now:

Find out what their problems are

Each person’s role brings with it different challenges. As you are introduced to people within the business, take the time to find out what issues they face in their role and consider how you can help them.

Inhouse legal counsel should offer to help and go the extra mile

Even if there are tasks that do not strictly fall within your job description, think about how you can go the extra mile with the task you have been given. For instance, can you help to obtain contract signatures or witness a document?

Setting boundaries is important for inhouse lawyers

This may seem counter to ‘offer to help and go the extra mile’. However, as legal counsel, it is important to set boundaries. Your ‘client’ is not comprised of one person, but a collective of people that form the business you are employed by.

Setting boundaries for individuals that are happy to cross them, in a way that benefits the broader business and the other individuals that may need your help, is an important part of being an assertive, but effective, inhouse legal counsel.

There are many stakeholders that are important to your career and you need to build strong relationships with all of them. They will help you grow in your career as in-house counsel.

Be approachable and personable

Inhouse legal counsel must be approachable and personable. You must create an open-door culture for your clients and team members. Clients should feel comfortable talking to you so that they are encouraged to be forthcoming with legal issues. For you to be able to do your job properly, you are reliant on your internal clients sharing important information with you.

You should maintain a friendly interaction with your team members and become an approachable leader. You should be seen as a level-headed confidant that is able to make balanced and appropriate decisions with information that is entrusted to you.

Be a solutions-oriented inhouse lawyer

The function of an in-house counsel is to guide decision-making in a way that enables the business to achieve its goals while minimising or (where possible) eliminating risk.

Being solution-oriented means:

In-house legal counsel
  • Avoiding the temptation to say ‘no’, except where it is absolutely warranted, for instance where your legal professional rules are called into action
  • Finding out why you are being asked a particular question – what is the end goal? Sometimes, the wrong question is being asked. By finding out the why, you can help to reframe the question that is being asked of you and solve the right problem
  • Looking at the bigger picture – how does this problem and how you propose to solve it fit into the broader picture of the business? Will anything or anyone else be affected by the problem and/or solution?

Communicate with staff at all levels

An inhouse legal counsel must be able to communicate effectively with staff at all levels. Make sure your communication is clear, concise, free from legalese and capable of being understood by the average person (i.e. someone who is not a lawyer!).

Diverse communication skills also mean showing the appropriate level of respect to all levels of staff. From directors, department heads, assistants to cleaning staff; show respect and integrity to all staff.

As inhouse legal counsel, good communication means excellent listening skills. As lawyers, we can have a tendency to express opinions and talk often. But getting into the habit of sitting back and listening can help you to become an excellent communicator.

In-house legal counsel

Lose the ego

Just because you are a qualified lawyer, it does not make you any better than anyone else in the room. Always remember that.

Don’t pretend to know everything. It’s important to show courage, put your hand up and say “I don’t know”.

In-house counsel should not be afraid to say they do not know something. The best legal counsels are those who know what they do not know and can identify when they need outside assistance. A good in-house counsel has the ability to identify problems, they know where help is needed, and they have the insight to get it from the right people and places.

Apply these things consistently, authentically, and with sincerity. Each of these points will help you to maintain and grow professional relationships.

A legal counsel should understand the direction of the company

An in-house counsel should know the direction of the company. You need to know what the bigger picture is so that problem-solving doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

By understanding what is important to the business you are employed by, you will be able to make recommendations that take into consideration those business goals.

Keep informed on legal trends

If you want to make a difference as inhouse counsel, you should seek continuous education (in addition to simply working on legal matters).

Continual learning is key for inhouse legal counsel

Throughout your career, you are constantly learning. You need to focus on expanding your knowledge of new skills and laws. Constant learning in new areas of law will help you stay competitive.

You should allocate time to reading books, attending conferences, webinars and courses to get information that will help you expand your legal knowledge.

Integrate learning with training and workshops

The impact of training and workshops on both your personal development and those of other people within the business should not be underestimated.

in-house counsel, you should invest your time and be generous with sharing your knowledge.

By researching and preparing training content, you will contribute to your own personal development. By picking highly targeted legal topics (for example, advertising laws that are highly relevant to the particular goals of the marketing department), you can expand your own legal knowledge as well as provide the business with foundational knowledge. This can enable the business to make better decisions and increase awareness of circumstances that warrant them engaging with you and seeking legal advice.

As an added bonus, providing training and workshops to the business help you to build relationships and increase the business’s engagement with you.

Be commercial in your approach as an inhouse legal counsel

As legal counsel, you need to show that you are capable of enabling and contributing to smart business decisions. Businesses look to their legal advisors to help them make strategic decisions based on both commercial and legal risk analysis. Your ability to provide this combined advice can add value to your client’s business and position you as a trusted business partner.

Legal counsels are different to private practice lawyers

In-house lawyers need to embrace a different skillset from private practice lawyers.

Lawyers in private practice tend to specialise early in their careers. Most private practice lawyers specialise in one or two areas. In-house attorneys, on the other hand, tend to be generalists who may deal with a variety of legal issues within their company.

In-house attorneys work closely with and are proactively involved with the company. Their legal works protect and contribute to the overall goals of the business. This is not always easy for an attorney in private practice, as they are usually dealing with narrow legal issues and are reactive.

Inhouse legal counsel

Private practice lawyers are not necessarily able to see the long-term implications of their legal advice because of their (usually) limited engagement.

Think about the practical application of the law

When you are formulating recommendations to solve problems, you need to consider the practical application of the recommendation(s). If the business implements the solution that you have recommended:

  • What is the likelihood and severity of the risk posed by the problem? (hint: you may need to speak to other departments to answer this question)
  • What is the potential cost to the business?
  • Does the business have the resourcing required to implement the solution?
  • Will the solution make the broader business less competitive?
  • How will the solution impact finance, marketing, human resources, sales, operations, staff, clients, etc?
  • What is the likelihood and severity of the risk posed by the problem?

If you can look at problems and solutions from both a legal and a business perspective, your advice is more likely to be sought out and seen as an integral part of business decision-making.

Is there a better way?

There is always a better way to do things and it’s important to take the time to identify areas for improvement and develop a strategy.

We’ve selected two possible ways that the inhouse legal function can be improved, being the use of legal technology and legal counsel contractors. Any improvements will need to consider legal budgets, time constraints and resourcing.

Use legal technology

Technology can significantly increase productivity. For often overstretched in-house legal teams, this can make a significant difference to the ability of the legal team to meet tight deadlines and go that extra mile.

If you want to increase your productivity as inhouse legal counsel, you should consider the adoption of legal technology. We have written about the top 15 legal technology trends here.

In-house legal counsel

Flexible legal counsel workforce

If your inhouse legal team doesn’t have the expertise to manage a particular legal matter, you may want to consider engaging outside counsel or hire a more specialised inhouse legal counsel on a contract basis.

As legal counsel, you should be mindful of your own time while monitoring the performance and workload of your team.

Hiring freelance legal advisors can provide you with numerous benefits. He or she can balance out the workload, fill employment gaps, and even expand your service offerings to the business. Using legal contractors may mean that you can reduce the amount of legal work you are outsourcing and reduce legal expenditure.

These proactive measures may increase the efficiency of your legal team and contribute to the profitability of the business.

About the Author

Farrah Motley
Director of Prosper Law. Farrah founded Prosper online law firm in 2021. She wanted to create a better way of doing legal work and a better experience for customers of legal services.

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