If you are reading this, it is likely because you have landed that new gig as an in-house lawyer (congrats!) or you are looking to make a switch to an in-house role. Whether you are coming from private practice, fresh out of law school, or making a lateral move to a new company, the learning curve as an in-house lawyer is steep. That does not mean, however, that you cannot conquer it! As I reflect on my first year as an in-house contracts lawyer, here is what I have learned along the way.
1. Foster Strong Relationships
Get to know your internal clients, such as the business and finance, compliance, or marketing teams. Set up initial meetings with your key contacts to understand what they need from you as their lawyer. What has worked in the past? What would they like to change? How can you help them meet their goals? Developing these relationships will allow you to better prioritize your work, manage expectations, and build your network of resources.
2. Pick Up the Phone
Do it early, if you can! These days, most in-house roles are remote and it is easy to get lost in numerous lengthy and tactless emails. Call your counterparty or internal client and ask them questions, discuss your opinions, and then work on the issue. This approach has helped me immensely in my negotiations. A great way to prepare for contract negotiations is to align with your internal clients first. I often come off the call with a better understanding of the project, why a particular position is taken, and which terms are most important. Ultimately, it reduces the amount of time and the number of times I have to review the agreement.
3. Make Time to Learn
Clients expect in-house to have the answer to everything. While that certainly is not possible, the best way to stay ahead is to learn about the legal trends within your industry. What are the common issues? Industry standards? Key regulations? You can do this by attending webinars, reading articles or registering for training programs. It is also crucial to read your company’s policies (including insurance policies) and understand how they apply to particular transactions.
4. Know Your Limits
As lawyers, and especially as new lawyers, we tend to push ourselves beyond our limits. In private practice, this is often encouraged. In-house, it could be detrimental if we do not know when to escalate a matter, ask for help, or refer to external counsel. Recognize what you can do and when it is best to let go and seek help. If you do take on more than you can handle, make sure to have the appropriate support in place to ask questions and receive guidance. This is not a sign of inadequacy, but of emotional maturity.
5. Keep up with Legal Tech
There is no denying that legal tech is here and it is here to stay. In-house legal departments are often the first to adopt legal technology and there is good reason for that – leveraging legal technology usually results in time and money saved. If you identify a need for legal technology within your department, do some research and pick a program that will provide an overall benefit. Whether it is improving contract negotiation timelines, compliance review, or managing workload, there is a plethora of legal tech out there to help you help your company meet its goals.
6. Seek out Feedback
Legal departments within different companies operate differently (duh). Some offer formal feedback mechanisms while others rely on you to proactively to seek out feedback. Despite the structure you find yourself in, it is important to ask your internal clients, colleagues, and sometimes even your counterparts (depending on the relationship you have) for constructive criticism. This will allow you to reflect on your approach as an in-house lawyer, and make changes early on if necessary.
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Overall, starting out as an in-house lawyer can be tricky; the work is complex, yet very rewarding. Remember to stay calm, communicate your needs, and approach this exciting opportunity with enthusiasm. Good luck!
Nimisha Dubey is a contracts lawyer with the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada. She reviews and negotiates complex clinical research agreements for the Princess Margaret Cancer Clinical Research Unit on a daily basis, with a focus on risk mitigation and patient safety. Nimisha is a self-proclaimed “contract nerd” and is thankful that she can use her legal skills and experience to support the development of groundbreaking cancer research.