Answers to Five Essential Questions
On a weekly basis, our staff is contacted by attorneys and asked a variety of career questions. Thus, we asked the search firm of SivinTobin Associates, which specializes in law department recruiting, to respond to the questions presented by our readers. As legal recruiters with more than 20 years of experience in placing candidates in corporations, SivinTobin has developed a fine-tuned sense for the qualities that attorneys need to succeed in a law department. The responses below are based not only on that experience, but also on conversations with many general counsel and other successful in-house lawyers.
1. How does the practice of law differ from a law firm to a corporation?
The two experiences are very different. The business of a law firm is law. The sole focus of a law firm is producing legal work of the highest quality. The attorneys are the pre-eminent part of the organization, and the effort and focus are directed toward supporting them and delivering the legal product. The success of a lawyer is evaluated on the quality of the work product, and, at senior levels, possibly the ability to generate business.
In contrast, the business of the corporation is its business. While in-house counsel must still provide the highest quality work, they do not live and work in a community of attorneys focused on the legal work product. Instead, they function within an organization whose focus is to further its principal lines of business. Corporate attorneys are there as an adjunct to the business people and must work to advance the same goals within a legal framework.
2. How should an in-house counsel interact with other departments?
Successful in-house counsel should learn as much about the business as possible and learn to speak to the business people in their language, not in legalese. It is important that they spend a great deal of time reaching out with interest and enthusiasm to the business people to learn about their business and about them as colleagues.
By understanding the business side, the in-house counsel can deal with the legal problems with more sensitivity and understanding of the consequences, and work toward the best solution for both business and legal goals. The most effective results occur when the lawyer and the business people are on the same wavelength. Attorneys who tend to be self-important about their status as counsel, and who imply that they are smarter than the business people, often don’t succeed.
In addition, it is important for the lawyer to realize that his or her role is not to constantly advise the business people that the law forbids them to take planned actions. Instead, when a potential legal problem arises, the lawyer should advise the business people of the legal problem and work with them to reach corporate goals without legal risk.
3. How do I learn about the business side of the corporation?
In-house attorneys need to take the time and initiative to network and meet people, and learn about their daily challenges. Most general counsel believe that it’s important for in-house attorneys to have breakfast and lunch with others, go to company social events, or drop by a person’s office to discuss what is going on in order to build their knowledge of the company and allow the lawyer to gain exposure. They also want their attorneys to ask for feedback—at the appropriate time, of course—from the business people about how to fine tune their work. Needless to say, such questions should be posed in a savvy manner.
4. How does the workload at a law department differ from a law firm?
In a law firm, the workload usually involves a few long-term projects at a time. In a corporation, there are usually a lot more quick-answer type of problems and questions to deal with simultaneously. New problems arise daily from the flow of new business, which is being developed on an on-going basis.
Learning how to juggle a continually expanding and changing workload, and deciding which are the most urgent matters for the day, is usually a new experience after lawfirm practice. During any one day, the triage may change several times.
In-house life also requires an attorney to think more quickly on his or her feet, get to the core issues of each problem, and find a solution quickly. The in-house lawyer does not have the luxury of spending hours reflecting about, analyzing, and researching an issue. In-house clients are not at all interested in long discussions of legal issues. They need quick, pragmatic advice in plain language. Where there are legal uncertainties concerning an issue, the client needs to be told that there is an uncertainty, what the risk is, what the downside could be, and what the probabilities are, so that the client can weigh the business and legal problems thoroughly.
5. How important are career goals?
At law firms, career paths are rather obvious. You either become a partner or counsel, or you gain good experience and then leave. It may be important for lawyers to strategize how to reach the top, but the goal itself is quite apparent.
In companies, the career path is more varied and not as obvious. As a result of the array of possibilities available in a company, it is more important to have defined career goals, and many corporations have formal programs in place to develop long-term career paths, usually three or five-year plans.
In situations where there is not an official career program in place, each attorney should have an individual career plan. Obviously this involves assessing the opportunities that realistically may be available within the company—or at another company—for movement within the legal area, or possibly into the non-legal area. Questions to ask yourself:
- Do you want to move up to a more senior position within the legal department?
- Do you want to expand your legal expertise and specialize in other areas in addition to, or instead of, what you are doing now?
- Do you want to develop your management capabilities?
- Do you want to move over to the business side if there is an opportunity?
After you have answered these questions, make a careful self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses based upon your past successes and failures. Frequently undertaking a written self-evaluation will cause you to think through things more carefully and lead to some conclusions that you did not expect when you started. Think about how you can build on your strengths and past successes, and how to correct the areas where you are not as strong in order to get where you would like to go.
Over the past several decades, the nature of in-house legal practice has changed considerably. Where at one time in-house practice was generally considered to be unchallenging and routine (of course with some exceptions), this is clearly no longer the case. In many companies, there are exciting and varied legal practices that are vital to the interests of the institution, and can provide highly satisfying careers to the savvy practitioner.
Vera Sullivan is a senior search consultant who specializes in law department and diversity recruiting at the legal search firm of SivinTobin Associates, which is based in New York City.
David Tobin is a principal of SivinTobin Associates.
For further information, send an email to the writers at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and are not of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
From the June 2002 issue of Diversity & The Bar®