Legal and Compliance Executive Search Blog

Essential Traits of an Effective In-House Counsel

Posted by Momentum Search Partners on Fri, Sep 20, 2013

Every day at Momentum Search Partners, law firm attorneys call our recruiters seeking in-house positions because they want to work closer to the business team, be more involved in a company’s business decisions and be part of the overall “big picture” strategy that corporate legal work typically provides. Part of our job as legal recruiters is to dig deeper to determine which candidates really understand what being part of the business team means - and whether they can successfully make the transition. A critical factor is communication and the ability to connect with the business team. But what does that mean, exactly?

An article in the February 4, 2013, Texas Lawyer written by Lisa Blue and Robert Hirschhorn identified several communication habits that lend toward creating a “charismatic” courtroom lawyer who is able to win juror’s trust and, in turn, their vote. This article caught our attention because of its similarities to a successful in-house counsel, and inspired us to explore what really makes a successful in-house counsel.

The good news is that Blue and Hirschhorn believe that “charisma is in large part a skill that lawyers and judges can master with study, effort and persistence” and identified the following traits or habits that courtroom lawyers should master:

  1. Listen to people with your full attention, without glancing at your watch or phone.

  2. Look people in the eye and step as close as possible without invading their personal space.

  3. Learn people’s names and use them.

  4. Speak clearly with intention and conviction without clutter or legalese.

  5. Stand up straight; good posture projects confidence.

  6. Smile sincerely with your mouth and your eyes.

  7. Praise others.

  8. Be humble; laugh at yourself.

  9. Never use humor at someone else’s expense.

  10. Do not be cruel or speak cruelly of others.

  11. Show your passion: be positive, energetic and optimistic.

  12. Become less selfish and more selfless.

An in-house counsel has the added challenge of connecting with several layers of corporate structures, including the Chairman of the Board and Executives, the General Counsel and Managing Attorneys, the business clients, peer attorneys and other company employees. As such, in-house counsel candidates not only must master the basic “charismatic” traits that trial lawyers must master, but also additional traits that entice corporate employees to listen to the in-house counsel’s opinions, as well as seek in-house counsel’s help sooner than later.

Based on feedback from our clients, we developed a list of additional traits that in-house counsel must master to be considered a “charismatic” and respected in-house attorney:

  1. Show your enthusiasm for the company you are part of and the team you work with. This is the number one requirement for a successful in-house counsel.  Having a passion for the company and industry is essential.

  2. Be helpful. Realize that you are a service provider to the business team - don’t limit your responsibilities to just the “legal” bits. You’ll enjoy the job more, and be more effective, if you stray beyond your box and take on responsibilities that no one else wants.

  3. In meetings, listen carefully - do not be the person dominating the conversation - and when a point must be made, speak with intention and concise sentences free from unclear legalese or distracting tangents.

  4. Speak in terms of solutions, not empty criticism or broad based rejection of ideas. Show your support for a proposed business goal, point out the potential legal issues and then offer solutions around the legal risks.

  5. Know when to oppose a path, but more importantly - how to put your foot down when the situation demands it. Too many times lawyers and senior execs look to see which way the CEO/Chairman leans before committing to a position. Integrity and trustworthiness can never be compromised. Use empathy when delivering an unpopular message. The strong in-house lawyer has already aligned his/her own success with the business team, so the empathy is sincere.

  6. Know your audience and adapt communication style and content.  Always be aware of how a lawyer may be perceived by the particular audience. Don’t be afraid to be the “loyal opposition” to assert an opposing view (always with respect and professionalism) but do so with an open mind to hearing and processing the information you receive in return.

  7. Respect others - no matter where they are on the org chart. Learn names of every one you work with and use them when saying hello, good evening, or other basic niceties. Everybody deserves respect regardless of their job title, function or corporate affiliation.

  8. There is no excuse for harsh words in meetings or emails. Correct bad behavior or performance in private and in person. Be calm, offer specific examples of ways to improve or change the situation. Alternatively, praise positive performance publicly.

  9. Do not multi-task while your audience is speaking. Maintain eye contact the entire time. Put your cell phone away while in meetings, whether formal or informal. Signal that your audience has your full attention by moving away from your computer (and email) or putting your cell phone out of sight. Listen to what your client is saying.

  10. Listen as long as your client needs to talk and really hear what they are saying about the matter; not just the legal issues, but ultimately what this matter means to them. Ask questions to go deeper and fully understand.

  11. Come prepared to every meeting, even the casual ones. Take the time to understand the point of a meeting, have an opinion and express it with conviction.

  12. If you don’t know the answer, don’t fake it or try to bury a non-responsive answer amongst a sea of chatter. Instead, repeat the question, commit to get the answer, and then actually follow through as soon as possible. It does not hurt to send an email, reconfirm that you understand and will return with an answer.

  13. Learn the business beyond your particular area of focus. Be proactive in gathering information by “walking around” to both learn what’s going on in the organization and to be accessible. Ask what people are working on, what they see coming up, and how previous issues you helped with worked out.

  14. Be self-aware; recognize what your strengths are and what complementary strengths you need from others. Always seek to improve yourself and overcome your weaknesses. Find those who have complementary strengths to minimize the visibility of your weaknesses and support each other.

In a nutshell, being a successful in-house counsel takes much more than the experience you list on your resume. The charismatic in-house lawyer knows how to manage the perception that others have of his/her trustworthiness and capabilities. These perceptions can be created or bolstered by how one interacts with others. Having a law degree from a great school or several years of experience at an elite firm only gets you to the table in an in-house position. You become successful when you have gained the trust of your business clients, the CEO, the Board, and your peers. This happens when each audience perceives that you care about them, their business and their people - and this is achieved by your communication style. As Blue and Hirschhorn point out, charismatic traits can be learned and mastered.

Momentum Search Partners thanks the numerous Board Chairmans, CEOs, General Counsels, and hiring attorneys that contributed their input to this article. A special thank you, also, to Cindy Pladziewicz who has been a wonderful resource to our firm and candidates on personal presentation and communication skills.

Topics: job success, in house, corporate interview process