The In-House Balancing Act

Using your legal skills to solve business problems

The In-House Balancing Act

Have you ever tried to explain what you do at work to your friends? Inevitably, this involves gently managing peoples’ glamorous expectations that your day job involves drama and antics that would appear in a script of Suits. We all know the day-to-day lives of lawyers offer disappointingly few drama-soaked storylines.

For lawyers who choose to move in-house, the resemblance is even fainter. Generally speaking, in-house lawyers are not striding into court or making dramatic revelations in discovery. So what do in-house lawyers actually do at work? They do what all lawyers do: solve problems. The difference is that, as an employee of their only client, in-house counsel are much closer to the business than an external lawyer could be. As a result, they are rarely asked to help with problems that are clearly defined legal problems. Rather, every in-house lawyer’s primary job is to use their legal expertise and experience to solve business problems in a way that appropriately protects their employer.

In-house counsel must not be afraid to roll up their sleeves and use their legal skills to help their client navigate business problems. Because of their training and experience, lawyers have much to offer in the corporate environment, including the ability to quickly analyse complex facts, ask good questions, spot issues, and communicate clearly. In addition, in-house lawyers often have deep institutional knowledge that is invaluable when a business is faced with a challenge. Successful in-house lawyers use all their skills and experience to help their employer’s business succeed.

That being said, in-house lawyers must be intentional in how they deliver advice. Lawyers’ words can have an unspoken weight, and without clarity an in-house lawyer’s personal judgment can be mistaken for legal advice. This can lead
to problems:

  • Colleagues may assume that a certain decision has the weight of “law,” when really it was based on the facts of the specific situation and good judgment; this can lead to bad decision making.
  • A lawyer giving a strong view may unintentionally shut down debate and challenge.
  • When lawyers do non-legal tasks, others may assume that the task needs to be done by a lawyer, which can lead to a lack of agility in the workforce and an unnecessary overload on the in-house team.

So how should in-house lawyers help their client solve business problems?

  1. Be clear. When you are speaking about an issue that doesn’t require legal advice, ensure your colleagues know that you are not giving a “legal opinion,” but that you are offering your views based on your institutional knowledge and experience. On the other hand, when you are giving legal advice, clearly say so and advise your clients on how to preserve privilege if the circumstances warrant.
  2. Be empowering. When an issue doesn’t require legal advice, ensure your colleagues know that regardless of your view, they are empowered to make a different decision without coming to you again.
  3. Grow your internal network, so that when colleagues come to you for help with a problem that doesn’t require your expertise, you can point them in the right direction.

In-house life may not be as dramatic as an episode of Suits, but lawyers who enter the corporate world have a unique opportunity to make a dramatic difference for their employers as intentional and thoughtful team members helping to move the business forward.