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Who Is the Ideal In-House Attorney?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 20, 2015 11:59 AM

When corporate execs dream of the perfect in-house counsel, what comes to mind? What particular skills and expertise do potential legal department lawyers need to make them the ideal in-house lawyer?

Unsurprisingly, the characteristics of a successful BigLaw attorney aren't the same as a great in-house lawyer or general counsel. In-house attorneys require a specific set of practice skills that will allow them to meet the broad needs of the business, as well as the interpersonal abilities to allow them to work alongside non-lawyers.

Legal and Business Skills

An ideal in-house attorney is one able to work as a generalist, addressing a wide range of legal issues and concerns, while also maintaining a strong understanding of the business itself. Often, in-house counsel do not need the specific, precise practice specializations often developed in firm work.

For example, a large firm might have a lawyer who specializes specifically in wage and hour defense, whose entire practice (and much of their legal knowledge) is tied to those issues. In-house counsel will need to know about such laws as well, though not with the same depth. Instead, their skill is in the breadth of their knowledge, allowing them to advise the company on a wide range of issues, from securities, to employment law to real estate. Often, experience in transactional law or corporate law will trump litigation experience, since litigation is often handled by outside counsel.

An in-house attorney's understanding of the business is equally as important as an understanding of the law. The ideal in-house lawyer has experience working in the company's industry or representing similar corporate clients. The more in-house attorneys know about the business, the better prepared they will be to help meet the business's needs.

Personal Skills

Working in-house requires significant people skills. The ideal in-house attorney is able to work with non-lawyers from all levels of the company. This means that in-house attorneys need to be able to translate legal concepts into ideas that make sense to people without legal training, whether their corporate executives or the lowest level workers.

The legal department is often viewed as a roadblock to getting business done. The stereotypical corporate lawyer is the one who says no to everything. And while caution is necessary -- after all, one of the benefits of an in-house attorney is having someone on hand to evaluate legal risks and uncertainties -- so is a bit of creativity. The goal isn't just to identify problems, but to approach them creatively and offer solutions that will allow the business to meet its goals while reducing its legal risks.

If this sounds like you, then you can expect a long and successful career working in-house.

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