10 Things You MUST Do As The New In-House Employment Counsel

You’ve decided to make the leap from private law practice to in-house employment counsel. Congratulations!

For some, exchanging billing, long-hours, and the highly-competitive, partnership track for a more predictable schedule, an established client base, and a new, shared mission may immediately feel well worth it. Before your switch, you found professional prestige as part of a competitive team of subject matter experts with the potential for an individual stake in the success of your firm, as well as the opportunities to gain respect among clients, peers, judges and legislators. Now, you are a member of a team, other outside lawyers approach you for work, and your opportunities for professional growth can become much broader than legal practice, if that interests you.

Since you are still just-as-much a lawyer, you may feel fully prepared for the challenge. Indeed, many of the client counseling and litigation principles you learned in private practice will benefit you greatly in-house.

BUT, remember in high school when you played drums in the garage band, and then you got into a major state university with the chance to play drums at nationally televised football games? Or, how you experienced sleep deprivation preparing for law school exams or that big trial, and then you had your first child? Or, after 10 years of using Windows PC you decided to switch to that cool MacBook Air?

On the surface, things seem the same, but they can be so different.

For example, do you remember that time in private practice when you counseled a client on a group reduction-in-force? You probably drafted a set of tightly drafted release agreements, performed a defensible disparate impact analysis, advised your client on plant closing laws, and provided a communication plan outline, among other things. The client made some important judgments and likely engaged you further if the RIF resulted in disputes, including litigation.

Now, picture your employer deciding on the group RIF. Will you personally draft the agreements and conduct the disparate impact analysis or, instead, manage outside counsel? Will you suggest that HR round up everyone in a room to deliver the bad news? If not, what would you suggest? What if they don’t all work in the same building? Or same state or country? What will the company tell those who are staying if they ask whether their jobs are safe? How will your HR clients distribute information to and answer questions from those impacted and not impacted? What if the Legal or HR team will experience lay-offs? What if you learned the company is about to lay off the co-worker you have lunch with every day?

Indeed, not all the skills you learned as a practicing attorney translate seamlessly to in-house employment law practice. In fact, to build trust among your new clients and decision-makers, you must continuously develop and enhance new legal and non-legal skills, and adapt your measures of success. The paradigms shift from billable hours, client development and tangible results to diverse objective and subjective performance measures; from client counseling to risk assessment/management; from maintaining relationships with judges, lawyers and outside clients to building trust with leaders, teammates, outside lawyers and inside clients; and from understanding the law and applying it counseling/litigation to understanding the law and how your guidance may apply to your business’s and its people’s success. Most importantly, how will your guidance drive the company’s success, directly and indirectly, short-term and long-term?

In addition to staying current on legal developments, what are 10 things you must do as a new in-house employment lawyer to navigate the transition effectively?

1.  “It’s strictly business.”

As a first-year law firm associate, you quickly learned that billable hours functioned as the lifeblood of the firm’s “business.”  As the new in-house employment counsel, quickly learning your company’s lifeblood will lead to a much stronger comprehension of the spectrum of options and associated risk assessment you can provide your internal clients. The most important inquiry – one that will help you in representing your internal clients – is, “How do our decisions related to people affect our ability to deliver on the company’s strategy?”

The company’s strategy isn’t a mystery. Read articles about the company. Ask for information from investor relations and listen to investor calls. Meet with different functional leadership (it doesn’t have to be top level) to diagram the structure of the organization, its leadership and its key functional resources. Learn about your customers from sales and marketing, and the bottom line from finance and accounting. Follow the process of researching, developing, manufacturing and selling a product or service, and how employees in different functions contribute. Know the company’s legal entities and who makes decisions. Remember, you can’t help your client be successful unless you know your client.

2.  Who is your inside champion?

Make no mistake, you are going to make friends as in-house counsel and it’s wonderful. However, these same friends can’t always provide experienced guidance, encourage others to support you or protect you if you mess up. Most often, but not always, this person is your manager. If it is your manager, it will be particularly important to measure her/him up before you start. Ask around, pose the right questions during the interview process and use your good judgment to determine whether you’ll have guidance and support from your manager as a direct report. Ensure that your inside champion is knowledgeable about the key players, their histories and their tendencies. Most importantly, be sure to pay back your inside champion with at least equal loyalty and trust.

3.  Who is your outside champion?

A financial planner I know has over 30 years’ experience and tremendous judgment. Nevertheless, she knows when to rely on the data experts and accountants, even though she probably could figure it out with enough time. Since you don’t have to bill and have the budget to pay the bills, identify a champion outside counsel who has the junior resources to conduct all that deep legal research and drafting (which you now can critique!). You can then focus your efforts on crafting the most effective legal and HR guidance possible.

More importantly, ensure that this outside lawyer has the depth and breadth of experience to serve as a mentor and sounding board.  There will be times when decision-makers will want you to confirm your own legal judgment. It happens to the best of us, and decision-makers sometime feel compelled to cover their flank with an outside opinion.  Having a mentor/advisor will reduce some of the loneliness of the role and provide that safety net. Finally, ensure that you “pay back” that outside champion in ways other than sending billable hours. Introduce your outside champion to your network, refer matters, and compliment her/him to your peers and leaders when opportunities present themselves.

4.  It’s a matter of trust.                                                                 

How well do you know the Chief Human Resources Officer or equivalent at your company? If you only see her/him in the presence of others, the answer is “not well enough.” Invest the time in getting to know your chief client at a deep level, most notably by learning and appreciating her/his strategic plan, performance measures to her/his boss (typically the CEO or Senior Executive) and her/his risk tolerance. Truly understanding these matters will allow you to better predict the CHRO’s response to issues and better prepare HR Business Partners and Centers of Excellence leaders. Over time, you may find yourself becoming a sounding board and partner on matters beyond the law, which can be gratifying and allow you to become a better resource to the business, your clients and the Legal Department.

5.  Know when to speak and when to listen.

After you start, take your time to demonstrate your value to the company or organization. There is no worse feeling than when you’ve offered an opinion believing it to be informed, only to discover a host of experiences and nuances to prove it objectively wrong. HR Business Partners and Centers of Excellence Specialists have so much to share, both tangible and intangible. Listen to their stories, challenges and opportunities, and ask questions about practices, history, people of concern, people who are high potentials. Develop a deep-enough understanding of recruiting, hiring, benefits, compensation and termination processes/terminology so you can leverage your own skills with a practical application as the backdrop.

6.  Make Human Resources look good.

Do you know that feeling you experience when a peer lawyer refers a client to you? Do the same with a specialist or business partner. It is one of the most fulfilling rewards to be regarded as an expert in something. Find a partner in HR, even a lower-level high-potential, and develop a policy, practice or training together, and then promote the singular efforts of that HR professional to her/his boss and to the team. You can check off a critical policy, practice or training to protect or improve the company, and you’ve simultaneously earned trust with your client. Win-win.

7.  Pledge your loyalty to Human Resources, but always remember HR is your client first, teammate second.

HR is fun. There are different, likable people and interesting challenges. Be a resource, and a partner/collaborator. But while you will likely spend most of your time with HR, it is important to keep a safe distance. You need to protect the attorney-client privilege (as much as you can assert), but be close enough to provide practical advice and opinions. If you get too close with your HR colleagues, the value of that advice and those opinions can erode.

8.  Remember who performs your performance reviews.

Show your manager that you want to educate and develop yourself and other lawyers. Corporate, intellectual property, contracts, commercial and other lawyers enjoy employment law more than you know. Employment law carries a certain level of (at times) entertaining drama unlike that which most lawyers experience. Monitor and understand legal developments that affect the business and your clients, and share the information/resources with your peers. Learn what your peers do and determine how you can support one another.

And, be thoughtfully and deeply prepared for every appearance before your General Counsel. If the GC is not your direct supervisor, this won’t just make you look good, it will make your boss look good!

9.  Everyone has a boss.

What keeps most employees up at night?  The boss.  We all have one.  You need to know what’s important to your client’s boss.  How?  Ask, “What would [insert boss’s name] expect to see out this situation?” The response will help you tailor the advice and approach to support your client in the eyes of the person conducting the performance reviews. In addition, it will position you both to ask the boss the right questions with prepared, thoughtful options if things don’t go as planned.

10.  Model empathy, but balance it with toughness.

Empathy is among the most valuable characteristics of both the HR Business Partner and In-House Employment Counsel. Empathy allows you to put yourself in the shoes of the person who has to make a difficult decision, just received a poor review or has been terminated, or is challenged with a management issue. Empathy can be a strategic tool for discerning what is important to an employee, a decision-maker or even a plaintiff.

But, remember that your principal role is one of the advocate. Know when the empathetic, people-person needs to unleash the bulldog. It’s a delicate balance, but showing your versatility to leverage the “bad guy” in you at the appropriate time will demonstrate your ability to lead in times of stress or crisis.

Building and enhancing these skills requires focus over a career lifetime. However, by investing and staying committed to these and other approaches, you can increase your visibility as a business leader, as well as your value as a skilled in-house lawyer and outside counsel.


© 2017 Palladino Law LLC. All rights reserved.

Posted: October 25, 2017 in: In-House Employment Practice