Strategies for the Effective, Satisfied In-house Lawyer

Strategies for the Effective, Satisfied In-house Lawyer

Unlike a tangible good, like a cup of coffee or dress, advice — which is a product of many legal interactions — evaporates as soon as it is uttered. Sometime during my legal career I noticed that my satisfaction with a relatively high-stress career is correlated with how seriously my advice is considered before it evaporates and disappears into a big, black hole of the universe. As a very happy lawyer, one who, if given the choice, would still go back to law school and do it all over again, below are some principles and strategies I have developed that make my legal practice rewarding, satisfying, and sustainable. 

Be a partner, not a cop. Many lawyers view themselves in a "policing role." While there may be a time and place for a police role, such as when lawyers are in a compliance role or they have Sarbanes-Oxley responsibilities, most lawyers' role should be closer to that of a partner, not a cop. Most lawyers provide advice, which a client does not have to take, as opposed to commands or direct instruction. And, unlike a cop, a lawyer relies on her ability to influence, not enforce (also known as "shoving it down a client's throat"). 

Be in control, not frazzled. Our clients seek advice either in anticipation or because of a difficult situation that they would never wish upon themselves or others. A lawyer's ability to remain in control of herself, which is frankly the only thing a lawyer can usually control, highly correlates with her ability to influence her client. That is, the credibility and stability of the lawyer as an advice source matters as much as, if not more than, the advice itself.

Be useful, don't just cover your own behind. While lawyers are known for their small font disclaimers, interacting with a client in a way that primarily covers the lawyer's own behind does not usually lead to useful advice. When a lawyer's main strategy is to primarily cover her behind, she can be overly cautious and uncommitted. This is in fact a very quick way to be dismissed for being too ineffective. If the advice is useless, then what's the point in giving it? Why even try?

Seek to understand, not advise, first. Our clients may not understand the intricacies of laws — that is, in fact, our job as lawyers. Our clients, however, understand their situation and business often much better than we do. Starting from a more humble place where the client educates her lawyer first is a good place to start. Lawyers should seek to understand a client's situation and business first, well before advising. Adjusting the given advice to what you learned about the situation from the client will make it more likely that your advice will be highly considered. 

Consider other tools, not just legal ones. While legal tools, such as contracts, are what lawyers know best, they aren't the only tools available to clients. For example, when it is hard or impractical to negotiate a well-buttoned up contract, it may be more effective and preferable to mitigate risks using business or technical tools. In providing advice, a lawyer should consider giving non-legal options to supplement or even substitute for legal ones. This way your advice will be more practical and you will avoid finding yourself in an "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" situation. This will also help you give your client options, which is a more effective way to influence than overtly telling the client what to do.

Support more often than you lead. I often joke that it is a sad day when a lawyer is at the head of the table. It usually means that a crisis has occurred. Fundamentally, being a lawyer is an exercise in generosity and selflessness. A lawyer's focus should be on helping her clients succeed and win according to her definition of "winning." The best compliment for a lawyer is having a client succeed, not receiving credit or recognition for her advice. 

Embrace your clients as they are. Finally, for a lawyer to complain that her client is "unreasonable" is equivalent to doctors complaining about too many sick patients. That's precisely why we are in business and why clients seek our advice. It is on us to be reasonable. Our ability to provide reasonable, timely alternatives, understand the situation, and build alliances is the reason we are in business.

Originally published by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Docket.

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