Hit the Ground Running: The In-House Survival Guide

With companies increasingly recognizing the value of their in-house teams, this area of the legal market certainly looks like it is flourishing and set to grow in Asia over the coming years. The ALB’s in-house survey 2017 mentions that 40% of their respondents predicted that their legal teams will grow in 2017. Looks like we will be seeing even more lawyers leave their private practice days behind this year! In our last article we addressed some of the considerations before making a move in-house, but what happens once you’ve already entered the fold of your new company? An In-House environment can be a drastic change to a law firm and the key to your success really lies in your ability to adapt to your new environment as quickly as possible – below are some suggestions to help you navigate this transition.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR ROLE

Firstly, you must be clear on your responsibilities – the job description that you were provided during the recruitment process is probably a good starting point in at least understanding what the company and your colleagues envisaged the role to be prior to being hired and it would also provide you with the length and breadth and also the diverse nature of your responsibilities. But as we all know and can imagine, the reality is most definitely different!

We’ve mentioned before that companies like Amazon and Google have legal teams globally that rival the size of law firms like Davis Polk or Milbank, so if you find yourself working in such a department then it would be important for you to understand the division of work responsibilities and what all your individual role covers. However, many companies (especially in Asia) tend to have much leaner teams and even sole in-house counsels who encompass all legal responsibility for the company – resulting in a position more multi-faceted than you could have initially imagined. Usually these roles provide broad based legal and business advise to legal management as well as to the regional business teams. These roles would most definitely take you outside your preferred practice area and expertise and you will wind up dealing with and answering questions relating to areas outside your comfort zone – for ex. Employment law, IP licensing, data privacy etc.

You also need to be clear on how your company operates in terms of company culture, processes, work flow and strategy – which will then enable you to prioritize and direct your work accordingly.

RELATIONSHIP BUILDING

Compared to a law firm – which have flat structures and even if hierarchical, simple enough to navigate (associate, senior associate, of Counsel, Partner etc), you would now probably be part of a different kind of team – so make it your first mission to find outwho the real stakeholders are in the companynames, roles and how you co-exist and co-function – it would be useful to get yourself and org chart and familiarize yourself with it. Your collaborative partners could generally be c-level executives (and it is important that you can speak to these people on an equal footing in their own language – using terminology and jargon that is widely used in the company!), however there are likely to be many more people you need to communicate with regularly. If you find out who the right people to talk to are early on, your life will be a lot easier, and they will also help to further you understanding of the company’s overall mission and pressure points alongside that of individual departments.

As a sole counsel with not many legally trained peers around you, you may find yourself in a slightly isolated atmosphere, so it might be useful to build a network with other in-house lawyers. Many will have been through similar struggles as you and the informal support could be of great benefit. Old friends and colleagues who have also moved in house are always a good place to start, but if this is not an option or if you simply want to expand your network – there are organizations like the SingaporeCorporate Counsel Association or Association of Corporate Counsel. You could even try joining one of the many networking groups – such as our very own Asia Legal Network. You will find that people in the same situation as you are often receptive to having a chat over coffee or a drink and sharing their experiences!

RISK APPETITE

It is usual practice for Private Practice lawyers to fire away advice on the law, with caveats – in a very risk-averse manner. It falls on In House Counsel to decide how that advice is to be adhered to – the various legal options and choices would have to be carefully examined and weighed keeping in mind the commercial strategy and business outcomes required. This cannot be pre-supposed as your colleagues and partners on the business side would have an equal amount of say and opinions on things.

This makes it critical for you to determine where your company stands on their risk appetite – you need to find the inner pulse of the company and where they stand on the amount of the risk the company is willing to take – you would then have to use that understanding to step up and make decisions. History could be a good tool is assessing these situations, feel free to dig around and find out how a problem or issue was dealt with in the past or in other markets within the organization. Some companies are very risk averse in and some others are extremely aggressive – Uber, for example is a pioneering company happy to shake up the legal landscape by stretching the limits of the law, most notably for their avoidance of taxi licenses – much to the annoyance of taxi drivers. Risk appetite can also vary within different regions and departments of a company – a bank that is very much risk averse in Europe, for example, may be prepared to take bigger risks for greater gain in Asia.

If you’re able to ascertain the risk appetite of your company early on, then you will certainly be on track for success.

WHOLESOME AND FOCUSED ADVICE

As an in house counsel, and especially as a sole counsel, your job will also certainly require you to delve into practice areas that you may have limited or no previous expertise in. To the average company employee, a lawyer is a lawyer and they likely do not realize that you do not have an unlimited knowledge of law outside of your specialisation. Which means that you will likely encounter someone knocking at your door with questions that are outside of your ‘’comfort zone’’. You must try and not dismiss your colleagues and be adaptable and autonomous in finding all the right information and help in finding the answer. This would indeed go a long way in developing trust and building long term partnerships.

You should also carefully consider any advice you give in a wholesome and rounded way – for example, when advising on a terms in an employment contract – something which you may never have done before – it would be good to also consider the possible tortious liabilities surrounding a breach along with the more obvious elements that would fall under contract and employment law.

Reputational risk also must be considered alongside legal and financial implications – take Samsung’s handling of the exploding Galaxy Note 7 phones last year – there were 40 days of production, sale, and advertising of the Galaxy Note 7 after the first explosion, and 2 recalls where faulty replacements were given out. One of these replacements given even caught fire on a US domestic flight, leading to airlines globally making special announcements about the device on flights and at check-in counters – flyers the world over have been specifically warned of the hazards of this Samsung device in what is probably one the greatest PR disaster of all time involving a phone manufacturer, and it seems like if that one customer had been given a refund this could have never happened or handled differently. Whilst simply offering replacements and continuing production as normal must have initially seemed like the most cost effective option at the time – especially as the company were also resisting paying out for damages for the resulting fires – the reputational impacts were shattering and it will be interesting if Samsung Telecommunications and the Note range in particular can ever fully recover.

When dealing with questions you should try to be succinct and to speak the jargon of your colleagues. Unless specifically asked for, it’s unlikely that your colleagues would want to know that you know everything about a certain legal topic and why you made certain decisions – they would want to know the answer, the risk, and the cost.

You should know the limits of your time and of your expertise – Outside counsel are there to take some of the pressure off and to assist with the bigger matters outside of your abilities so be sure to develop a good relationship with them.

COST AND BUDGETING

You are now a back office function and cost centre – therefore keeping your budget in mind is a key to your survival, especially during difficult economic times. Asian Legal Business magazine reported that 43% of in house teams regularly report ‘outside counsel spend’ as a Key Performance Indicator and 24% regularly report legal spend as a percentage of revenue against the industry average – compared to only 18% of teams having litigation win rate as a performance indicator. Clearly being able to demonstrate that you are thoughtful in your spending will certainly make conversations with your CFO and other partners go much easier. Although this is unlikely to have been part of your job description before, implementing methods of financial reporting could help you to predict your team spend as well as quantify savings, and this should give you solid data to demonstrate your value to those who may question it.

Outside counsel are certainly there to help when you need them, but it is also critical to make sure that you are not running to them for things that you have the ability to deal with in-house – that is the main reason that you are employed, after all! When you are going to external counsel, you should be also conscious of managing the spend. Perhaps you could reduce costs by using cheaper firms for certain types of work (for example, smaller niche firms for specialised work, or less prestigious firms for less complex matters), or try negotiating on price and using alternative fee arrangements such as discounts, rate caps and fixed fees. Furthermore, we have heard stories about some domestic law firms charging high figures without providing itemised bills, and indeed heavily discounting fees once questioned about it so perhaps this is something to also be aware of.

BROADER RESPONSIBILITY

You will likely be asked for input on things that aren’t obviously a legal problem – but remember this is an entrepreneurial environment and that there is often an emphasis on adding value outside of your prescribed responsibilities as you are now operating at a cost to the company instead of a fee-earner, so be ready to step up to the challenge of an increasingly multi-faceted role. Making efficiencies in the way legal issues are processed and managed will also help with your company’s overall profit and loss management – perhaps you could implement self-help guides or a portal to address minor issues that you frequently get asked about.

KEEPING UP WITH DEVELOPMENTS

You also need to consider that you won’t have the support and infrastructure that you once had in Private Practice. Whilst law firms do a great job of circulating legal developments, it will now be your own responsibility to keep up to date – so make sure you are signed up to law firm “client updates”, legal news bulletins, magazines and legal blogs. Furthermore, your new company is unlikely to have huge libraries of information and templates of legal documents at your disposal, and if you are their first in-house hire then be prepared for there to be nothing at all. ALB’s latest in-house survey reported that the most regularly monitored key performance indicator for legal teams was their response times, so it is important to utilize any downtime to start collating the resources and templates you need.

LONG TERM SUCCESS

The overall trend for staff turnover in the in-house legal side is relatively low, with the majority of in-house counsel have worked in-house for an average of 6.7 years compared to a tenure of between 2-4 years  for a private practice associate. We frequently meet General Counsels who have remained in the same company for 10 years or more, so once you establish yourself early on in your tenure, you will most likely be rewarded with a fruitful and ‘long-term relationship’ within your new company.

If you are a lawyer looking for career guidance or are a company looking for a new counsel or legal team then please do not hesitate to contact Abeo Consulting on (+65) 6100 1900 for tailored advice.

Authored By Daniella-Louise Bourne and Amith Narayan from Abeo Consulting – a specialist legal search firm headquartered in Singapore.

We place a high value on our relationships and work with a comprehensive list of clients which include international law firms, multinationals and financial institutions operating in Singapore and within the Asian region. We give an objective, impartial and honest advice on your career and we pride ourselves on the tailored recruitment solutions we offer.

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