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In-House Counsel's Guide to Success: Tips from the Pros


Check out key insights as seasoned in-house counsel members of DRI share their invaluable tips for success in this dynamic field.

In the world of corporate law, in-house counsel bear the weight of unique challenges and responsibilities. They are the architects of expansive legal strategies, guiding organizations through complex regulatory terrain and serving as guardians against legal risks. This demanding role requires a profound understanding of the law, flexibility, and strategic finesse.

So, we asked our in-house counsel members: What key piece(s) of advice would you offer to people in your profession, whether they are just starting their career or have years of experience, based on your role as in-house counsel?

"The best advice I can provide to a young lawyer is how important it is to maintain a healthy state of mind and not let work overwhelm you. Maintaining a good work/life balance will help to keep you grounded and being able to identify what work needs immediate attention and what can wait is critical. I highly recommend that lawyers 'be themselves.' Don't try to be something you're not because people can generally see through that.

From a professional perspective, here are my thoughts:

  1. Identify your professional goals.
  2. Visualize how you get there.
  3. Stay focused.
  4. Be a good person.
  5. Stay true to yourself.
  6. Don't get discouraged.
  7. And don't be afraid to ask for help."

Michael K. Callahan, Assistant General Counsel, Eversource Energy

"I would say 'never say no.' And further, to proactively look for opportunities to engage within your company in different areas and with different people. As an example, I was asked to co-lead the site selection, building, and furnishing of our North American HQ—a two-year project. I learned so much during that time: project management, site considerations, [and] how to create an energized, collaborative work environment. In that project, I was part of a team of colleagues from many functional areas with a common goal and purpose—and it was one of the best experiences I've had. And yes, we brought it in on time and under budget!"

Kelly Freeman, Director, Legal ZF CVS North America

"Early in my career I read the wonderful book To Kill a Mockingbird, and I have watched the movie several times. In the book, Atticus tells Scout: 'You never really understand a person until you consider the things from his [her] point of view…'

I found that to be so profound. We never know what someone is going through, and remembering this critical fact when discussing an issue that could become confrontational, or discussing a topic with someone who feels differently than you do, will cause you to pause and think about the issue in a totally different light.

I found it gave me the ability to show empathy even if I did not know exactly what the other person had experienced. In a similar way, it has helped me to be more patient with someone who is unaware of the totality of my situation."

David L. Jarrett, Counsel Western Reserve Group

"As an in-house attorney in a smaller legal department, no two days are ever the same. The issues we face are all over the map ('but, I don't know the first thing about railroad law!'); we work with all kinds of people – inside and outside the company ('what exactly was he thinking when he said that?'); the things we are asked to do are varied to say the least ('I went to law school to do this?'). My key piece of advice: embrace the challenges that come your way and never stop learning. Be it new technology, leadership/EQ skills, the inner workings of your company, trends in your industry, or whatever is hot in your corner of the law—seize the opportunities to grow and learn. Uncomfortable? Sometimes. Valuable? Always. You'll advance your career, stay competitive, and just maybe have a bit more fun in your practice."

Morgan Milner, Assistant General Counsel, Modern Woodmen of America

"Listen. Listen. Listen. Then ask questions and listen some more. Being self-aware that you are not the smartest person in the room and having confidence to acknowledge that will help you learn faster, gain trust sooner, build a network quicker, and demonstrate to your managers, partners, and clients that you are interested in growing professionally and developing skills that you lack or are a challenge for you.

My other advice would be to run to problems and issues that you encounter. Don't be afraid to work outside your comfort zone; and definitely don't be afraid to fail. You only get better at what you do by failing and trying again."

Tim Shanley, J.D., Manager, Corporate Risk, Ventas, Inc.

"An in-house counsel, at any level, serving the entire company or a particular department, simply must know the client's business. The company's business has implications in everything that you do, in all the advice that you give, and how you reflect your client's image when in court or in public. Your decisions about representation will indicate to others who your client is, not who you are. Law firms have their own characters, and they can be publicly fired by their clients to escape association. Firing a single in-house counsel will never be remembered by your client's customers.

Knowing your client's business as in-house counsel means more than just knowing the company's products and services. You must understand and be part of the corporate culture. You must understand exactly how customer revenue is generated and the costs of operating the company's business, including supply, labor, O & M, and regulatory compliance. Becoming an essential component of your client's business solidifies your career. With all that said, of course, you have a higher standard of conduct than your client, which you cannot compromise.

The benefits of serving as in-house counsel are myriad, far beyond just not having to bill time. If your company does require you to 'track' your hours, however, you CANNOT track or bill any of the many hours that you will spend following this advice to learn about and know your client's business."

In-house counsel with 20 years' experience in the same Fortune 500 company

DRI has many resources for in-house counsel. To get involved, check out our Corporate Counsel Committee. If you are a member of a corporate legal team, don't miss DRI's In-House Defense Quarterly (IDQ), which offers in-depth reporting on topics relevant to in-house counsel.

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