Before landing my first in-house role, I read everything I could get my hands on about making the transition from private practice to in-house. Not only was I interested in how lawyers made the move, I was also interested in reading what I could about whether it was a move I wanted to make. From what I was reading, making the move was not easy and not always what it was cracked up to be.
Recently, I chatted with my good friend Florence Z. Mao, a senior associate at Ogletree Deakins, who shared with me that she was where I was those many years ago. She was in private practice, but she was interested in seeing what it would be like to move in-house. Flo did more than read about what it was like to work in-house. Flo temporarily made the move in-house through a secondment. Whether she decides to move in-house or not, Flo shared with me that her secondment allowed her to do something even more important. It provided her with an opportunity to gain a perspective that did not have before. With this perspective, she would be able to serve her clients better and bond with her client’s in-house lawyers in a way she had not done before.
What is a secondment?
It is when a lawyer is assigned by the lawyer’s firm to work temporarily for a client company for the purpose of meeting the workforce needs of that understaffed company due to a company employee’s absence.
What did Flo learn?
I will let Flo tell you in her own words. As an in-house lawyer, I would have to say that she hits the mark with her assessment. I am now an absolute fan of secondments. What a great way to strengthen the partnership between outside counsel and in-house counsel.
3 Ways To Strengthen Your Bond With In-House Counsel
In the last five months, I’ve had the privilege of seconding at a large technology company as their in-house employment counsel. Before this experience, I’d spent my entire career at law firms. It was eye-opening to finally see things from a client’s perspective. Now that I’m returning to private practice, I’d like to share three lessons I’ve learned during my secondment to help outside counsel build stronger relationships with in-house attorneys.
1. Respond, Respond, Respond.
In-house attorneys juggle multiple balls at any given time. Sometimes a question to outside counsel is for general enrichment (i.e., “What is XYZ new law in New York?”) or to prepare for an upcoming internal initiative. Other times, the question is more urgent. Maybe a C-level executive is asking for information to make critical decisions. Maybe it’s a tricky personnel issue and HR is waiting for an answer to take next steps right away.
Even if you don’t know the answer and need time to research, responding to acknowledge the request can assure in-house attorneys that you’re on it. By letting them know that you’re “on it,” they can move to the next fire they need to put out. Just as an associate might check with their partner on when an assignment is due, ask when your client might need an answer. The response may surprise you — they often need it ASAP.
2. Bedside Manner Matters.
If in-house attorneys are contacting you, they know that you’re the subject matter expert. You’ve spent hours becoming an expert. They’re contacting you because they’re unfamiliar with the area of law. Talking in an intelligent, but approachable, way can make a difference here
For example, I was on a call with outside counsel to discuss an international legal issue. Our paralegal wasn’t available for the call, but I told counsel I would fill them in afterward. Outside counsel then asked me a question about the underlying issue, and followed up with, “Or is that a paralegal question?” Even if counsel didn’t mean it this way, it sounded dismissive and left a bad taste in my mouth. In-house attorneys and paralegals work as a team — they’re often on the same page about major issues, so not everyone needs to attend a meeting.
As another example, a director-level employee and I had a call with outside counsel on a complex area of law. When outside counsel asked a question and the director began to answer, counsel would cut the director off and not let them finish. This occurred many times during a 20-minute call. After the call, the director called me to complain about outside counsel. While virtual calls are not easy, be intentional about how you interact with in-house attorneys and their only client – company employees.
3. Put Your Recommendation At The Top Of The Email.
In-house attorneys get many emails and phone calls from different departments throughout the day. They are often pulled in multiple directions. Some issues they deal with are easily disposed of, but others require intense negotiation with internal stakeholders and contain time-consuming problems to solve. As a result, emails that are long, winding, and don’t provide clear recommendations are exhausting and frustrating to read.
While it’s important as outside counsel to “cover your bases” and make sure clients have all the information they need to make a decision, you’ll be recognized as a true business partner if you can succinctly recommend a course of action at the get-go. Put your recommendation at the top of the email in one or two sentences. Then explain your reasoning in more detail. In-house attorneys will appreciate your clean and crisp communication and return with more business.
My secondment has provided a greater understanding for how I can better serve my clients in private practice. Bottom line is that in-house attorneys are almost always dealing with multiple fires on any given day. The best way we, as outside counsel, can support them is to partner with them to achieve the best outcome. The three strategies above will take you there.
Florence Z. Mao is a senior associate at Ogletree Deakins, one of the largest labor and employment law firms in the United States. She helps businesses of all sizes comply with ever-changing employment laws and mitigate risk against potential legal claims.
Lisa Lang is an in-house lawyer and thought leader who is passionate about all things in-house. She has recently launched a website and blog Why This, Not That™ (www.lawyerlisalang.com ) to serve as a resource for in-house lawyers. You can e-mail her at [email protected] , connect with her on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lawyerlisalang/) or follow her on Twitter (@lang_lawyer).