Skills Workout: Making the most of your first 100 days as an in-house lawyer

The LexisPSL guide to making the most of your first 100 days as an in-house lawyer

Congratulations on securing your first in-house role! You’ve done the hard work of deciding to build your career in-house and you’ve found a company you respect and a role that suits you, so now you need to start planning how you’re going to make an impact and do well.

Having interviewed hundreds of in-house lawyers in order to develop our legal information service, LexisPSL, we’ve learnt a thing or two about how to make the transition from law firm to in-house team, so we’ve prepared this short guide to help you avoid some of the pitfalls and hit the ground running.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know

The first few weeks are likely to be largely taken up by meeting new colleagues and getting to know your new boss. If you’re lucky, some of these meetings will be arranged for you in advance, but don’t feel confined by the list of meetings set up when you arrive. Use this time to get a feel for the politics and culture of the business by inviting yourself into as many things as possible. Particularly look out for:

  • board meetings (depending on your level)
  • sales team meetings
  • all-hands or town hall sessions, where employees ask questions of senior leaders
  • product or commercial planning sessions
  • opportunities to meet your new company’s customers – either at events or by inviting yourself along to a sales meeting or two.

Ask as many questions as you can, particularly in respect of the product lines, where profits in the business come from, about the major costs and the objectives and priorities for the year for the people you meet. Find out what law firms are being used and who is appointing them—it might not always be the legal department Also ask for copies of key contracts, so you can read and familiarise yourself with key dates and the terms and conditions.

At the end of the third week, make a quick list of all the people you’ve met who will be key to getting your job done: your boss, team (if you have one), colleagues in Legal, administrative support, key contacts in other functions. Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there anyone you haven’t yet met who should be on the list? If so, how quickly can you meet them? Do you need an introduction? Who on your list can help you with that? In particular, check that you’ve met as many of the directors of the business as possible and the main product managers and sales managers
  • Is there anyone who didn’t seem welcoming or helpful? Why would that be? What do you need to learn about or watch out for with them?
  • How well do you understand what motivates each of these stakeholders? How well do you understand how influential they are? If the answer for any or all of these is “not very”, who can help you find out more?
  • Keep this stakeholder matrix and add to it over your time with the business. When you are working on projects that require collaboration, use it to help you work out which people it is essential to engage with, who your allies are and who you will need to work harder to convince or work around.
  • Finally, make sure you know who the main personal assistants are in the business. The CEO’s PA is one of the most important people in the business and a good working relationship will be key to helping you get things done.

Make sure you have been properly “announced” to the business, especially if yours is a new role. A group-wide email or Yammer message with a bit of background information and a photo will make it easier to introduce yourself to people in person.

Fail to plan, plan to fail

"I feel like I am standing on a motorway bridge watching cars whizz past having no idea who is driving them or where they are going. I don’t even know what make of car they are."

The words of one new in-house counsel, describing their first weeks in the job. The variety and buzz of being in-house is one of the main attractions but they can make it hard to plan and execute effectively.

To help you succeed, ensure you set some robust objectives with your boss after your first month in post. When agreeing these, think about:

  • Do you have all the tools, contacts and information you need to make progress? Do you understand what you’re being asked to do and why it’s important?
  • Do you feel any deadlines are realistic? It’s usually safer to explain why a deadline could be difficult and negotiate for more time, rather than risk letting people down.
  • Are there any other processes or projects you think you could make improvements to (see section on Quick Wins below)?
  • How can you measure the impact of any changes you want to make? Can you quantify improvements in terms of time or cost? Do you have the means to measure these things efficiently?
  • How will you communicate your priorities and progress to your boss, team, stakeholders and the wider business?

Review the objectives you come up with at the end of your first three months and then every six months thereafter, either with your boss or on your own. Are they still fit for purpose? Have priorities shifted? Can you articulate progress and illustrate with figures or feedback?

Doubtless one of the things you’re most looking forward to is the end of time recording but make sure you don’t lose track of where your time is going. Are you spending too much time on transactional reviews or advice that could be better served by standardising documents or processes? Are there projects that you should be involved in earlier?

Lawyers work in words, not numbers

That may well be so but if you want credibility in your business, you need to “fake it ‘til you make it” with the numbers. Depending on how many gaps you feel you have to fill in this area, you might want to get some Finance training or do some further reading around the subject. As a minimum, ask questions during your first few weeks to make sure you can:

  • quote this year’s revenue targets and last year’s performance for your new business
  • break that down across major product lines
  • list the five main customers per area of the business and have a rough idea of their contracts’ value and renewal dates
  • understand the average order value for different types of customer and product line
  • understand the target and actual profit margins for your different products
  • be aware of any areas of outstandingly good or poor financial performance in the business
  • read a balance sheet
  • read a profit and loss account
  • say what your targets are for accounts payable/accounts receivable days (ie how quickly you are paying your bills and how quickly your customers are paying you) and how the business is performing against target.

It’s also worth familiarising yourself with the way business cases are presented in your new company, what the sign-off procedures and limits of authority are and what methods of investment appraisal are preferred by your Finance team.

Where are the quick wins?

Through your first few weeks, make sure you keep a look out for potential future “quick wins”—projects that are simple and quick to execute but have a disproportionately large impact, either because they are important to a significant project, customer or leader in the business or because they are causing a significant volume of complaints or delays. You might not tackle these initiatives straight-away but your first 90 days is a great time to take note of potential areas to work on. Examples could include:

  • streamlining or eliminating unnecessary steps in a process, for example implementing a threshold for contract reviews to reduce the number that involve Legal
  • finding ways to reduce the time commercial colleagues spend in compliance training by implementing online learning
  • creating FAQs that tackle questions Legal gets asked a lot upfront, to reduce the number of queries waiting for answers.

As well as watching out for these in your first few months, you can also identify these projects by asking for feedback from across the business. Consider putting together a questionnaire or customer satisfaction survey that you can email to your internal customers, asking for feedback and ideas for improvements.

Once you’ve identified good activities to focus on and made improvements, don’t forget to celebrate your success. Find ways of demonstrating the improvements, either in numbers (“We’ve reduced the number of contracts needing legal review from 120 a month to 40”) or by quoting feedback from happier customers. Look out for tools to help you communicate the results, like internal newsletters or your intranet.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

It’s tempting to think that as a subject matter expert, you have to have the answers for everything – especially if you’re going into a role as sole in-house counsel. This inevitably increases the pressure you feel in your job and, long-term, can lead to burn out and additional stress. So as part of your first few months in post, start building your support team and work out who is going to help you succeed:

  • make sure you plan and stick to regular one-to-one meetings with your boss; it’s amazing how often this time can fall by the wayside under the pressure of day-to-day events
  • cultivate relationships with people in key functions such as HR and sales, who can help you with skills and knowledge you might be lacking
  • look out for networking groups in your business and use them to build relationships and get a different perspective from people in other areas
  • build project-based alliances that are aligned with business priorities by volunteering your input on the latest product launch or people change initiative.

Use this opportunity to think about your mentors. People who have mentored you previously are likely to still be able to give you useful feedback and advice but consider adding someone from your new business.

Read this note in LexisPSL In-house Advisor

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