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Over the last decade, the movement from law-firms to in-house counsel services started as companies started realizing the value in-house lawyers add to enable them to proactively manage risks. 

As corporate management saw the transformative skills in-house lawyers and GCs bring to the business, opportunities in the digital world of law practice started opening up in organizations, tech companies and startups. And that’s how GCs and in-house lawyers started becoming an integral part of the tech world. 

What are the major differences between working at law firms and in-house legal roles? 

Factors Law firm In-house
Practice area Working with multiple clients. Your understanding of their operations is surface-level. Specialized in understanding how your client’s business works. Also how business decisions are made, identifying existing issues and avoiding roadblocks.
Compensation Billable hours. Consistent schedules and fixed working hours.
Control Lawyers are revenue drivers. Lawyers have an advisory role, being actively involved in shaping the future of the company.
Approach Documentation-oriented. High velocity, using technology to find answers in the least amount of time.

The move from law firms to legal will be challenging. Especially when you’re the only person on the legal team. But being empowered by the management to make decisions wherever necessary and identifying the points of improvement will help you make an impactful contribution to the business. 

How to streamline your role as the first hire? 

Gather information - Start by interviewing senior leadership, board members, stakeholders and department heads. As an in-house lawyer, it is important to develop relationships and trust at various levels of the organization. 

When the legal function is brought in-house, it means identifying the future challengers and having the foresight to address them or working with teams and educating them on the law. Remember, ultimately your role is going to evolve into a larger breadth of expertise. 

One of the biggest mistakes a lawyer can make is staying within the C-suite and senior leadership. You will have to reach out to different departments and build relationships with everyone. Let them know that you’re an ally to the business, someone they can reach out to at any time. 

Function as a generalist - As an in-house lawyer or GC, you will also function as a generalist. In addition to providing legal support across different departments, a comprehensive view of the business plays a critical role in reducing friction, addressing the key challenges and risks and connecting the dots for cross-functional teams.  

Assessing the current status - Start by assessing the current status of legal and compliance programs. Instead of expecting full compliance straight away, try establishing a balance so that the company can continue to grow. Fastracking things could end up paralyzing the business. 

Integrate your expertise with business objectives - Find out what the leaders want out of the legal department. It could be legal, compliance, regulatory, contracts, or data issues among many other things. Soak in all the available information and integrate legal with business objectives. The resultant legal output will be more relevant to business interests and generate more value for the organization. 

The key initial challenge for in-house lawyers

The key challenge most in-house lawyers face is - understanding how your colleagues in other teams work. Start by looking at teams you’d frequently collaborate with - sales and customer success. 

There could be many questions in the product’s or company’s FAQs that specifically impact these two teams. Like clauses in the T&C or GDPR-specific questions. 

Your team is to provide information in an easy-to-understand format. Avoid acronyms, legal jargon and use simple language that everyone in the organization can understand. 

Most people in the sales and customer support functions would never have worked with a lawyer before. Being accessible is critical for the in-house lawyer. 

Take the time out to figure: 

  • How does each team function? Do they have a knowledge-sharing page that the legal can link to? 
  • How would they digest the information? Would a live training session help or do you need to present information in a different format? 

Another important thing, most non-legal peers are used to effective business-friendly communication and that’s an indispensable skill you’ll have to learn. Displaying value in terms of ROI, charts, numbers and graphs is how you can help the business teams understand and appreciate your work.

How can GCs and in-house lawyers provide maximum value to the organization? 

Learn cross-functional skills - To maximize the value you bring to the organization, learn to decipher accounting and financial aspects of the business like reading the balance sheets, income statements and cash flow of the business. It’ll help you see things from a sales, finance, operations and management teams perspective. You’ll be more empathetic to the pressure these teams face on a daily basis. 

Upskill and align with other teams - In addition, along with being a technology lawyer, upskill yourself. Corporate transactions, litigation, employment laws, financing and compliance will make you more aware of the business. When your stakeholders consider you as a business person who speeds up the selling process instead of slowing it down, you’ll have their buy-in. 

Build technical know-how - Talk to sales, technology, finance and marketing teams to know the business better. Scale repetitive processes. For example tasks like template creation, compiling clause libraries and building a self-service legal function. Empower the internal teams with easy-to-use templates and legal explainers. 

Be a part of the larger vision of the business - The most successful in-house lawyers have critical thinking skills, strong written and verbal communication skills, capabilities of working cross-functionally and being empathetic listeners. These are valuable skills across the management spectrum. 

Beyond solving just legal problems, lawyers bring multifaceted abilities to solve issues the company faces. The smartest companies are realizing this and inviting lawyers to be a part of non-legal discussions wherein these skills are invaluable. 

Also read: Top 19 Contract Management Skills to Master in 2023

How GCs can start on the right foot and build rapport with non-legal teams 

Prioritize - Know who your key audience is and the teams you’ll closely be working with. Prioritize identifying what the team needs from you and align your activities to fulfill their objectives from the very first day. 

Be responsive - Over and above that, be responsive. The biggest difference between law firms and startups or other organizations is the velocity of work. You will be seen as a blocker when you take too long to respond to a query. Make sure all teams know that you are approachable, transparent and here to help them. 

What’s important to know is that when you go in-house, you’re expected to plug in to make business processes more efficient. You’re one of the many moving parts that help run the business but you are not #1 on the hierarchy. 

Cross-functioning - The cross-functional nature of legal teams forces you to put your insights to work to their benefit. For example, when you are helping the sales teams, you need to answer - “How can I expedite sales contracts?” Or “How can I automate the contract negotiation process which is currently being done manually?” 

Be a technology enabler - One way to go about this is by using technology to make processes more efficient. Contract management software like SpotDraft can help business, sales and legal teams collaborate with each other, set up approval workflows and avoid scope creep. 

Amid the revolution in legal services, it is an exciting time to be an in-house lawyer: Wrapping up 

Don't forget, as a lawyer you add immense value to the business. Whether you realize it or not, you are of paramount importance in translating the legal world into the business world. Being the bridge between legal and business, as an in-house lawyer, there will always be a massive need for you. 

Indeed, an exciting place to be in.

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