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Lisa K. Lang currently serves as the General Counsel for Kentucky State University, a role she has had for four years. Before this, she has worked in a variety of in-house roles for the Kentucky Department of Education, served as an Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and has also been a Sergeant in the U.S. Military.

She now is a regular contributor for multiple publications like Above The Law, and regularly advocates for collaboration and process improvements in the in-house profession through LinkedIn and her own website - Why This Not That.

For the 7th edition of #LegalMatters, we had a quickfire chat with Lisa on navigating the in-house legal environment, networking for lawyers, and what keeps her going.

The U.S. Military wasn’t a strictly conventional start to a legal career. How did that come about?

While I did well during my undergraduate degree, I did not see myself at the top of a competitive law school class and I wasn’t sure I could get in. So, I enrolled in evening classes for paralegal studies.

It is there that a recruiter from the military showed up and talked about this role. It would be a challenge, and would also be my first legal job. And I love challenges, so it was an easy decision to make.

It has been quite the journey ever since! You’ve worked at a law firm, been an Assistant General Attorney, and had multiple in-house positions.

Well, yes. A lot of times, people have a defined pathway to their careers and progress strategically. For me, it has really been about diversifying my experiences, learning about my strengths and weaknesses, and figuring out what I really enjoyed doing.

The military taught me important lessons. It reconfirmed that law was the right field for me, and also made me realize the value of spending time with family. My son was only 5 months old and my daughter about a year and a half when I was deployed to Bosnia Herzegovina. I left on Christmas Eve and I didn’t come back until almost Thanksgiving, the following year.

So, even though I had learned a lot from that time, I knew that I had to leave to spend time with my family. So in a way, one experience would inform the decision I would make next.

That has been the recurring theme in each position I have held along the way. I would find out more about myself, find out more about a job, and then figured out what was working and what was not working for me.

And of all the jobs I have had, I have enjoyed being an in-house counsel the most.

Moving in-house can also sometimes come with its own culture shock. How did you find your early days?

To be honest, going from private practice to being an in-house lawyer was a difficult transition. The problem is that when you represent a client as a litigator, you have this very combative, adversarial approach.

When I moved in-house, I quickly realized that this fighting stance does not work.

Your responsibility as an in-house lawyer is to work collaboratively with your stakeholders and come to a solution that is beneficial to all parties. This involves a deep understanding of your organizational mission and objectives, simplifying legal processes to improve business efficiency, and focusing on building trust through relationships. I recently covered this in my article for Above The Law.

When I moved in-house, I didn’t have these resources at hand to help me get started. It is why I try my best to educate and inform the legal community by contributing to publications or regularly posting on LinkedIn.

Your LinkedIn posts are a truly incredible resource for in-house lawyers looking for direction. They are also a great way to network with like-minded people. What is your secret sauce?

As is with anything else, it takes a concentrated effort over time and consistency to see results. But I do feel that I have been blessed with a highly active and encouraging network of people who have supported me since I started posting regularly on LinkedIn at the beginning of the pandemic.

It is a great resource for visibility and network-building. I have been on many podcasts, written many articles and blogs, been invited to present at a national conference, and am a regular contributor to multiple publications.

I don’t think of LinkedIn as a platform to get a job. I think of it as a platform to share my experiences and opinions with my community and to inform people to the best of my abilities.

Even if your objective is to get a job, it is best to start being active before you are actively looking out for one. That way - by the time you are ready to move positions, you are going to have the exposure and the network to help you land the next opportunity.

COVID has changed much more than our means of information consumption. How has it impacted your work?

The legal industry had to go remote when the pandemic hit, and I think that has caused a metamorphosis in the way we approach our work. It has caused people to accept the fact that you have to pivot and improve your existing processes in order to function efficiently, even from afar.

And it has made us more aware of the possibilities that we never thought about before.

Prior to the pandemic, only 18% of students were studying online at our university. When the pandemic hit, many said that it was impossible to switch to an online mode of education. But within 2 weeks 100% of our students were taking classes online.

And while the school was changing, the operations of the in-house legal team had to evolve with it. And even though only 20% of our staff was on campus, we still had to support our students and deliver 100% of what we provided previously.

Working virtually made us realize how antiquated some of our processes were and we quickly incorporated technology to replace the manual functions to ensure that we were future-ready.

Now that you have worked virtually, would you be comfortable working with outside counsel without actually meeting them?

Working from home has had different impacts on different people. For some, it has allowed them to be more productive while for others it has restricted their ability to interact and operate from a hassle-free environment. But if the question was on working with external counsels I’d never have a chance to meet, I would have no problem with it.

I would like to occasionally go out on a social function to get to know them better. But I would rather not pay for them to drive to our campus. If something can save us money, without impacting the quality and delivery of work, why would I be against it?!

What do you think about diversity and inclusion in the legal industry?

I think diversity and inclusion aren’t something the legal industry has done well. There is scope to do a lot more, bring people together, and gain more diverse perspectives in the legal industry.

KYSU is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). It is very close to my heart that a part of the mission is to help our students be able to have the same opportunities that other students have in the workforce after leaving the university.

There are many ways to work towards diversity and inclusion, but the first step is to focus on our immediate surroundings. Ask yourself the question - how can I improve the situation with the tools at my disposal? What factors can I control or influence?

For example, as a university, we are also working with litigation insurance companies. These companies have a panel formed of members from different law firms. I started conversations with one of our partner companies asking them to consider workplace diversity as a criterion when they interview law firms to be a part of their panel counsel.

It is crucial that diversity is not looked at as a moral course correction for the legal industry, but as a vector for growth. Diversity at the table promotes diversity in viewpoints and correspondingly improves the quality of solutions and services being devised.

What would your advice be for the next generation of lawyers?

It goes back to nurturing the ability to experiment and explore. I think it is great to have a plan but it is also necessary to be able to pick up and follow sudden changes. It is very difficult to be able to decide what you want to do with your career when you have not yet had an opportunity to experience everything there is.

Also, it is not only about growing legal skills. I’ve picked up a lot of associated skills that I picked up along the way and they have helped me thoroughly in my career.

The military helped me learn skills like leadership, and over the last year, we have all realized how important soft skills (though most people don’t like that term) are.

It is important to learn emotional intelligence, resilience, grit, and empathy. Those are things that you don’t necessarily get taught in law school, but you should find opportunities to help develop. Because no matter what your industry is, it is difficult to be successful without these skills.

More importantly, you must realize that if you’re not uncomfortable, you are not growing, and if you’re not growing, you will never be able to continue to progress in your career.

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