From profit to cost-centre: thriving (+surviving) the transition to in-house counsel

So you’ve decided to make the leap to in-house counsel, from schmoozing clients to becoming the client.  You’re ready to tackle a career with hopefully more sociable hours and less billable hours. 

And now you find yourself in an entirely different planet, where you are merely just another costs- centre to the business.

Working in an in-house role requires a different set of skills and mindset. Here’s our top 10 tips for any lawyer transitioning into in-house and, how to soften the inevitable culture shock. 

1. You are just another cost to the business

In the world of big law firms, we tend to live in a bubble where fee-earning lawyers are at the heart of the profit-generating firm. This all changes when you enter the world of corporate in-house counsel. 

Your company will have a number of central functions specific to their industry. Your new internal clients will have different roles and requirements, and answer to different needs of the business, usually geared towards growing the business and generating revenue. The legal sign-off is merely one phase of a transaction, and probably not the most important one. 

Be prepared for a lesson in humility- your colleagues may see you as one of many boxes to be ticked for sign off.

2. Speak a language that people understand, and want to understand.

As a lawyer, we are used to working with other lawyers who are also lawyers, or clients who can navigate their way through some legalese. You could even throw in a few latin phrases for good measure. However, try that with a junior internal client and you will probably be met with a confused look. 

As in-house counsel, you will likely deal with internal clients who have no background or exposure (or interest) in law, and whose focus may solely be on the technical or financial side of your organisation. Now is an important time to ensure you speak the language that your client wants to hear. Whether its simplifying legal terms, consolidating your legal advice to punchy dot points, drawing pictures, or even picking up the phone to your client asking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer.  

Skip the legal jargon and long-winded sentences and focus on digestible advice. 

3. Let people know that you are the expert they can come to

It goes without saying that increasing your influence and promoting your personal expertise will elevate your career, open up opportunities, and promote your team as a high-performing department. 

Get involved with your colleagues, draft legal updates, provide legal training and give presentations to board members, general managers and directors. These may at times seem thankless, however think of it as an investment in your long-term self-marketing.  And perhaps your colleagues might even appreciate your endless enthusiasm for something everyone else perceives as dry.

Be strategic about your influence- identify who are the people you need to influence and assess what skills and knowledge you hold which would be of the most interest and value to them.

4. Understand the numbers

Lawyers hate to admit it, but we are not always the best with numbers. Having financial literacy will help you build credibility with your non-legal colleagues and internal clients, particularly if you are well versed in the finances of your organisation and are clear about the profit margin, the bottom line, and the target finances. 

If necessary, undertake some simple finance and accounting training. As a starting point, read your organisation’s annual report. 

5. Be a focused problem solver. 

A large part of a lawyer’s job is identifying and advising on legal risks of any transaction. Not only does this affect your reputation, but failure to do so can amount to professional negligence. Lawyers are taught from day one to be meticulously diligent in identifying all potential risks associated with any transaction or project. And after a few years or practice, risk aversion tends to be the sole spectrum in which we see reality.

It is therefore no surprise that lawyers often have a reputation for being the bearers of bad news or being the roadblock to a deal. Once a matter goes to the lawyers, expect some gloom and doom. 

An in-house lawyer’s role does not solely consist of providing legal advice. Good in-house counsel will identify the risks and find a practical solution to solve a problem that aligns with your organisation’s goals and priorities. It is important that you do not look at the lens of any problem you are trying to help solve purely from a legal perspective. If you provide your client a purely legal answer to problem they are trying to resolve, it is unlikely you will provide them with a practical solution they can use. 

Other than thinking about the regulatory or litigious issues of a problem, also consider — do we have a realistic budget for this, do we need to consider the reputation of the company in pursuing this, will this affect our relationship with stakeholders or suppliers, does this align with our company’s priorities? A good in-house lawyer will provide practical solutions with broader consideration of commercial issues. Remember that your colleagues are coming to you as they want your input on business decisions. 

Avoid the buzz-kill reputation. Rewire your brain: start by identifying the problem, then turn your focus to finding possible solutions. 

6. Be approachable.

Clients may sometimes find it intimidating to approach lawyers, especially when they are well aware of how time poor we can be. We also have an unfortunate reputation of being competitive. 

Positioning yourself as someone from the outset who is always approachable and a team-player will help build your reputation, influence and trust with your colleagues.Having a good rapport with your internal client is a good foundation for building a strong professional relationship with the people you work with. Avoid being typically competitive or merely getting straight down to business without bothering with niceties. 

At the same time, don’t fall into a trap of getting involved in office gossip- ensure you are approachable, but respected. 

7. Be customer focused

We live in a world now where we expect everything to be provided instantaneously, and we have a right of recourse when those demands are not immediately met. Anything beyond impeccable is unacceptable. From the way the waitress treated you, the 5 star rating you gave your uber driver, to the timeliness and accuracy of legal advice you provided. Our attention spans are shorter than ever and in a competitive world with a wealth of choice, it means that we have the luxury of being spoilt. This goes for any industry, including client servicing professions like the law. 

Mere competence is no longer sufficient, it is important to adopt a “customer focused” mindset. This means having some flexibility when dealing with clients, providing ad hoc advice in the communal kitchen or over the phone, and providing service “add-ons” where possible. 

This does not mean “the customer is always right” and never saying no, especially to unreasonable demands. But it does mean having some flexibility in the way you communicate with your client.  

8. Become technology savvy

It is a rude awakening at the start of your in-house career to realise that unfortunately, there is no word processing team available on hand 24 hours a day to assist you with the uneven margins of your Word document. 

Practising law in-house requires more than just legal skills. It is imperative that you are proactive in increasing your technology literacy to make your job easier, be efficient and stay relevant. This does not mean ensuring you know all the short cuts and functions of Word, Outlook and Excel. It means considering possibilities to automate your tasks, collating data from different parts of the organization to assist with the company’s performance analysis or improvement, consider practice management system that your legal department use, and consider technology you can utilise to collaborate with internal clients and make both your lives easier?  

Thankfully, there is a wealth of information available on the internet- often free. Invest in taking the time to pick up these skills, the more the better. 

9. Understand your organization

Law firms are homogenous and it is fairly clear what the bottom line of any profitable law firm is. However, non-legal organisations have different priorities. From the outset, understand what the top priorities of your company is. Is it to increase revenue? Increase market share and become the market leader? Enter new markets and launch new products? 

Knowing this vital information and incorporating it into your every day role will ensure your advice is always aligned to the long term goals of your organization. For example, a good starting may be to ensure you understand the commercial and business priorities when reviewing a contract. A step further is to seek opportunities (and not just legal ones) to collaborate with your colleagues and help achieve those priorities and goals.

Remember, the reason why you stand out is that you have an intimate knowledge of your organization, something that an external lawyer does not have. 

10. Be a “can-do” all-rounder

Moving in-house sometimes requires an entirely different skill set, requiring you to do things outside of your comfort zone. From administrative tasks, managing external lawyers and project management of projects. It can include taking ad hoc enquiries from all levels of the business. And it can also mean expertise away from your specialty and being a legal advisor in all areas of corporate and commercial aspects of the business.  

Your first few months will be a steep learning curve of developing these new skills, brushing up on other legal areas and understanding the corporate culture of your company. Be open to embracing the non-legal side of your role and learning as much as possible.

Ready for the next step? Read about 10 things I wish I’d known before… becoming a General Counsel

Ant Bekker
Founder | MD

 Ant launched his corporate legal career spending a decade covering ecommerce, technology, finance and litigation at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, followed by in-house stints at global behemoth BT and for the UK competition and consumer regulator (the OFT). An MBA at INSEAD led to a change in direction spending time at a top global strategy consulting business (Booz & Co), and projects in the Netherlands, Singapore and the US.  

Ant then got his feet wet in startups, joining marketing technology business Rokt as inaugural General Counsel and Head of Operations, building both divisions from the ground up. A few funding rounds and 10x growth later, this quickly turned into a global scale-up valued at US$250m+ and 175 staff

Ant founded Biztech Lawyers in 2018.   Biztech Lawyers is a tech-centric law firm.  We serve tech clients and use an array of legal technology to make legal processes more efficient, allowing clients to grow as painlessly as possible.  Our role is to act as a decision-making partner, rather than a legal-blocker.

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