As SIA recognizes honorees of its 40 Under 40 list of staffing professionals, it seems fitting to explore how in-house counsel can best serve their organizations while also rising to the top. Not everyone seeks to become a general counsel, and even if that is your current posture, there is still reason to play your role well and seek to be the best at what you do. You will be setting yourself up to be an excellent in-house counsel and positioning yourself to be great at any other opportunities you may pursue.
Learn the company. First, it is essential that you understand exactly what your company does. You need to understand not just its business activity but also its business goals and historic business strategies. Knowing what the company does, what it has done historically and what direction its leadership intends to go can inform your legal strategy as you guide the company in and out of risk situations.
Just as important as getting to know the company is getting to know the personnel with whom you’re working. You have to learn each C-suite member’s risk aversions as well as what business opportunities excite them. Learning these leaders’ personalities will enable you to provide the best strategic legal guidance because you will know those with whom you can toe the line within legal boundaries, and you will be prepared when addressing those who will want to push beyond the black and white lines of the law into the gray area. Most important, as you are learning the personalities of the C-suite members, is learning how to say no — which I address later.
Learn the industry. You must also learn the industry within which your company works. It is essential to know business trends within your industry as well as the actions of competitors in the space. Perhaps it goes without saying, but it is important to know in general the laws and regulatory guidance that impact your business. Without question, you will receive questions and encouragement to approve actions and strategies because a competitor is doing the same or to get ahead of a competitor’s anticipated actions. This is where your knowledge of the industry, including applicable laws and regulations, combined with your knowledge of your company can be particularly helpful.
Learn to authentically share your guidance. If you take nothing else away from this column, please remember this: The people you are advising always want you to be authentic in your provision of legal guidance. There is no benefit to them — or to you, frankly — if you support and encourage every action or strategy on the table. There will be times when you disagree with the strategy being pursued solely based on legal reasoning. You should not be afraid to express that disagreement and share the legal reasoning behind your disagreement.
No company hires a general counsel, or anyone in the legal department, to be a yes-person. Rather, they hire a general counsel because they want a genuine assessment of the legal risk of the strategies that they are pursuing. However, if you are going to disagree with the strategy being considered, you should be prepared to offer alternative solutions that might be helpful. While your company wants to hear your authentic legal opinion, they do not want to work with a “Department of No.”
Earn the trust of leadership. All the company and industry knowledge suggested above will enable you to earn the trust of your company’s leadership. Company leaders can tell when you truly understand the company as well as the industry in which you are working. For that reason, you earn their trust, and they are more likely to follow your guidance without challenging your understanding.
Instead, their challenge will be around additional, alternative solutions that may be sufficiently productive. In that moment, they are viewing you as a business partner, which is high praise and perhaps the ultimate achievement for in-house attorneys. Rising to the top takes a great deal of hard work and dedication. Hopefully, the tips shared here will make your rise to the top just a little bit easier.