When I left my law firm to join Priori Legal as General Counsel, I realized quickly that practicing law in-house, particularly as a solo GC, was very different than my role as a corporate associate. For one thing, there were no trusted colleagues down the hall to advise me on how to acclimate or to help when questions arose.
That’s why I’ve been so excited to embark on a project of interviewing some of Priori’s in-house clients and friends about their experiences. I sat down with in-house counsel at Canary, Amplify, Artsy, and Leverage Agency to discuss what they wish they’d known during the first 100 days in their jobs. Based on the conversations, we’ve created a cache of thoughts and advice to assist lawyers transitioning into new in-house roles.
- Understand that the speed at which things are moving and the speed at which things can change are related. When I worked in a large in-house legal department, some decisions took months. At Canary, an equivalent decision might be made in two weeks. That’s tremendously exciting, but it also means I only have a short time to make sure I'm doing things the right way.
- Lay the groundwork for reaching out when you need help. It’s incredibly helpful to be able to call a lawyer and say, “I'm dealing with this crazy thing I've never seen before, have you dealt with it?” I have a deep bench of great lawyers who are happy to take that call, and I should not have hesitated to pick up the phone.
- Invest in process and structure early, especially in a fast-growing company. Some processes do need to be structured. It's better to get structures in place as soon as you can because as companies grow, it becomes harder to undo habits and change entrenched processes and systems.
- Understanding the company’s products was the most exciting and the most challenging aspect of my first 100 days in-house. When I interviewed at Amplify, the president of the company asked me what I would consider to be a successful first year in-house. I answered that I would consider the first year a success if I got to know people at all levels of the organization and understood Amplify’s products and how the company supports its customers. That latter goal turned out to be the most exciting – but also the most surprisingly challenging – part of my first 100 days in-house. While we all feel familiar with the educational system, the day-to-day reality of school has changed quite a bit since we were in school. So one of my biggest challenges during the first 100 days was to understand the interplay between education policy initiatives and transitions in technology, how that interplay has impacted schools, and how it translates into the products Amplify markets as well as more general opportunities in the education marketplace. I worked hard during the first 100 days to acquire the industry and product knowledge I needed in order to give sophisticated legal advice at a level that was useful to my internal clients, but it was quite challenging at first.
Yayoi Shionoiri, Senior Counsel at Artsy, on advice for lawyers beginning their first in-house job:
- The first step is recognizing that legal practice in a firm and being in-house are two totally different things. Working in-house is fast-paced, and it can be very forward thinking. It can also make the lawyer really feel like they are part of a team that's working towards a business-oriented result. But working in-house also means getting things done really well without sufficient time or resources, which can sometimes be messy.
- There are no 100% correct answers. An in-house lawyer always has to balance the true business needs against the potential risks of related decisions and then quantify those risks for the internal client business person in a way that the business person can understand and actually helps that business person determine what direction they should take. Successful in-house lawyers are always in the trenches like this. It’s challenging but also the thing that makes in-house legal practice so fantastically exciting.
- Manage expectations. When you are at a law firm, you are working with other lawyers who understand what is on your plate and what it takes to complete each task. Business people don't necessarily know what is involved with your job and so in-house counsel must manage the business side expectations entirely differently – you need to explain what you are doing and why it is important to get done in the way you are getting it done.
- Focus on understanding the company. Everyone says “understand the company” – and of course, how else would an employee excel in any company? However, really understanding the structure, affiliated entities, the relationships between the owners and exactly where your role fits in this entire roadmap, takes significant work. It is crucially important to do this work as early as possible once you join the company.
- Trust your gut and relay advice with confidence. You can always follow-up, but you need to be able to speak confidently about each piece of advice you are providing.
Our Tips from Over 100 Years of In-House Experience continues over the next few weeks, so check back for more stories and advice from in-house counsel in upcoming posts.