Learning to dance in the rain: how to thrive in an in-house environment

While your role may come with stressors and crises, it's important to remain resilient in the face of challenges. Simon Ashcroft, in-house lawyer at Mercedes-Benz, shares his top tips on how to thrive - rather than just survive - working in-house.
A man smiles widely looking into a laptop.

The role of in-house counsel is, fundamentally, to support the business in as many ways as possible. This often means that each day is very different to the last; one day your focus is on non-disclosure agreements and contract work, the next is secretarial administration.

In between the day-to-day tasks, however, throw in the added excitement of random phone calls, off-the-cuff queries and hypothetical, exam-style questions, and you have yourself the perfect ingredients for an in-house environment.

In such a varied and expansive role where each hour could be quite different to the last, how do in-house counsel learn to dance in the rain, rather than to shield themselves from it?

Here are five ways to do just that:

1. Know your business

The first step is to understand the business; know how it operates, learn its policies and get to know its key contacts.

The idea is to really live in the business environment (not literally, of course). Understanding where to turn for any and all queries at the outset is important as it will ensure that you can deal with the matter quickly, efficiently and effectively.

The last thing you want is to be given a high-priority and urgent task, and to cause delay by stumbling around trying to get going as you don’t know where to start. Ask questions whenever questions arise in your mind, as this will ensure you are prepared to act when the time comes.

2. Make friends, not just acquaintances

From my experience I have found that in-house legal teams can often be seen as ‘scary’ and ‘secluded’. When other members of the business avoid strolling over to ask any questions they have, this can be a problem. The aim is to make friends in the business, not just acquaintances.

What’s the difference, you ask?

A friend will be comfortable and trust you enough to ask you the questions which, to them, might sound silly. In reality, it is often such silly questions which may lead to an important find – so ensure you provide the right environment for any and all questions to be asked by being friendly to all.

Remember: a friend is someone who, in most cases, has a bond with you and who trusts you.

An acquaintance, on the other hand, is simply someone you know. They might not be so quick to pick up the phone or stroll over to your desk to ask a question as they may feel uncomfortable doing so.

The difference could be as simple as an acquaintance not feeling comfortable enough to ask you a burning question, so they keep it to themselves, resulting in an issue arising further down the line which could have otherwise been avoided if resolved in the first instance. A friend may feel comfortable enough to ask the very same question and, by doing so, may avoid the further issue from ever arising.

Consider this: do your part in creating an environment which facilitates confidence and trust, and allows people to ask questions and raise concerns. Avoid the separation of ‘legal’ and ‘business’ and instead act as one.

3. Make yourself known

As above, in-house counsel should really integrate into the business and avoid being seen as a separate function. I’ve known people to think of in-house counsel as “too important to waste time talking to others”, “not fun to deal with” or, in some cases, “scary”.

In the same circumstances I’ve known those people to change their views shortly after engaging with in-house counsel and really getting to know them.

This, of course, works both ways. Making yourself known is not a case of shouting your name through the office, it’s engaging and really caring about the members you deal with on a day-to-day basis.

It’s making yourself known; show your personality, whilst ensuring you strike the balance between professionalism and being too casual and carefree. Avoid being the unapproachable in-house counsel if you aren’t unapproachable otherwise.

Making yourself known will positively impact the daily tasks, too. If someone remembers your work from another matter, not because of the content of your email or by the response you gave on a two-hour call, but because of how approachable and engaging you were at the time, they will quickly think of returning to you repeatedly.

Remember: “A gentle word, a kind look, a good-natured smile can work wonders and accomplish miracles.” – William Hazlitt

4. Be both proactive and reactive

The role of in-house counsel is not simply to wait for the business to come to you and to ask questions or to require support. Of course, being reactive to such things is a big part of the role, but an element of a proactive nature goes a long way in ensuring matters are finalised quickly and efficiently.

It also helps to pick up issues or concerns which you might come across in your daily activity (after all, you wouldn’t leave an issue just because it didn’t present itself to you first, would you?).

Being proactive goes hand-in-hand with the role of any lawyer, in-house or otherwise; diarise to follow up on something you have sent or requested, check-in with others to ask how something is going even where your task is done (in other words: don’t just send a lengthy explanatory email and think all is well – try following up with the recipient to see if they need further support until you know the task is closed), or even pick up the phone or stroll over to someone in the office to talk it through, rather than rely on reacting in endless email chains.

5. Understand the ‘O-Shaped Lawyer’

The ‘O-Shaped Lawyer’ started life in 2019 and is founded on five basic principles: taking ownership, having an open mind, being optimistic, making and taking opportunities, and being original.

Understanding and implementing each of these points will help you thrive in-house.

Implementing these principles (along with the above tips) in your day-to-day tasks will ensure you thrive in the environment you work in.

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