by David Hejna on March 17, 2016
It can be tough to work as full-service general counsel in a one-lawyer company. There is so much to know and so little time to handle all the work.
Coming from a 500-lawyer firm that followed the modern Big Law model, I became the whole legal department for kCura as general counsel, vice president, and secretary in 2010. Suddenly, I had to work fast and hard to refresh and expand my legal knowledge so I could effectively tackle a broad spectrum of corporate law responsibilities on my own.
Here are some tips for those starting out or contemplating a similar role.
Tip #1: Embrace the business goals.
An in-house counsel role allows for flexibility in balancing legal risks and business goals, as well as the opportunity to be proactive early in the development of policies and responses to issues. In law firm practice, lawyers are trained to err on the side of caution. It’s a reasonable approach in the role of outside counsel, and it keeps clients out of harm’s way. But as in-house counsel, there’s more freedom to say: “There is some theoretical risk, but I am not concerned enough about this issue to lose or delay this new business opportunity.”
Because in-house counsel are knee-deep in it all, we have a close understanding of where our businesses want to go and are able to make recommendations with the same passion as the rest of our teams toward achieving the business goal—while also contributing the legal view and judgment call on the risk-reward ratio. This makes the job fun and rewarding, and colleagues appreciate and take interest in the insight.
Tip #2: Stay close to the products, people, and policies.
Any business is built by the people behind it; they’re setting the business goals, developing the products, and putting policies in place to guide it all. In-house counsel become especially efficient and productive as we learn about and participate in all areas of the business. Be sure to take advantage of this access. Attend internal learning programs with the rest of your team, and stay aware of your sales team’s market perceptions and pricing needs. By developing a deeper understanding of the products and sales policies, you can draft and negotiate deal documents more efficiently.
Additionally, as GCs work more closely with their company’s HR group, we all become increasingly efficient in discussing and resolving issues together. Offer yourself up as a continuous resource and stay involved in proactive discussions on company compliance with employment laws, employee benefits laws, and various evolving policies with legal implications, such as employee handbook updates and parental leave policies, which require careful consideration and drafting work.
All of this helps you build not just stronger business and legal practices, but lasting relationships that will make your future efforts more effective.
Tip #3: Take advantage of technology.
Modern legal technology helps immensely as you navigate new waters. I am three times faster and more productive now compared to the time before lawyers got the internet, PCs, and email systems—I can say that because I date back to those dark days. I personally use Microsoft Word for document creation and revisions with lightning speed (yes, I use all of the many buttons and icons in my highly customized UI).
e-Discovery software can be put to more than one good use, too. For example, you can use Relativity for litigation holds, document collection, processing, analytics, and review. Even for companies like ours that have little litigation beyond the occasional action to enforce trademarks, it’s good to take comfort in knowing all these tools are easily available and will save a great deal time when you need them. You can use tools like Relativity Legal Hold for other compliance purposes, such as requiring that employees affirm that they have read and will comply with the latest employee handbook or policy. Additionally, our team has built a custom program on our Relativity instance to use text analytics to monitor and check new relevant patents as they’re added to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s database. You can encourage your team to build custom workflows and applications that meet your unique needs, too.
You may find it helpful to collaborate with your HR group on obtaining and implementing commercial online compliance webinars with automated completion tracking. As your company grows, you could also collaborate with your procurement group to check out more specialized software, such as a document assembly application.
Whether you’re building from the ground up or working alongside a highly developed team, these tips can help you make the most of your corporate legal career. So what do you love about your role? What tips would you offer your peers? Let us know in the comments.
David Hejna has worked in mid-sized and larger law firms and various in-house positions before his current position as GC, VP, and secretary for kCura.