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From Lawyer to Legal Counsel: Stop Being a Consultant, Become a Leader

28 Apr 2020
Adrien van den Branden, LL.M.
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Last year I quit my job as a business lawyer to become an in-house lawyer.


Throughout the years, I felt more and more frustrated with my work. As a lawyer, you spend evenings and week-ends crunching transactional documents and crafting legal memos. But you rarely see the outcome of your hard work. Bending theory into practice is "up to the client".

However, I really enjoyed working for multiple clients in various industries. I felt I would lose "something" by committing 100% to one company. I didn't feel ready to be a legal in-house counsel just yet. But when Osimis and PaxFamilia, two amazing SaaS companies, offered me to join as a part-time flexible legal consultant, I jumped in.

It was love at first sight!

It felt so wholesome playing a small part in the greater purpose my clients were achieving.

However, transitioning from a pure advisory role to that of a company insider was harder than anticipated. To be honest, I struggled to adapt. But didn't really appreciate why until recently.

It finally dawned on me one year later. At the start of 2020, I launched my startup Canyon. Our mission at Canyon is to help modern companies drive their legal operations. Before the launch, I wanted to deeply understand how in-house legal counsels were dealing with legal today. So I interviewed more than 50 legal professionals working in companies of all sizes and industries.

I realised that many company lawyers had felt the same way I did when I began working in-house. Some are still struggling, despite being in the job for more than a year.

It struck me that virtually all company lawyers I interviewed started their career in a law firm. But only a handful were realising that they had to change their position to successfully transition into an in-house role.

To be successful, company lawyers must relinquish their advisory role and embrace the position of business partner.

Becoming a business partner is the end-goal. To achieve that goal, company lawyers should radically change their ways of working. Company lawyers should stop acting like consultants and start becoming leaders.

I call this "the metamorphosis from consultant to leader". consultant-to-leader

I carefully listened to company lawyers who metamorphosed into leaders

I learned that they shifted:

  • From "Legal for legal" to "Legal for business" - You joined a company to exercise your influence on the business. I say "company" and "business" throughout this article, but obviously, the shift applies to not-for-profits and their charitable goals as well. Bottom line is you must translate an advice into an opinion. Law firms often say that their advice is pragmatic. But as an in-house counsel, your advice must be opinionated. Ask yourself this killer question: "what would be better for the company?" and start your opinion by "I think it would be better for the company to...". Results guaranteed!

  • From the expert view to the holistic view - Lawyers are experts in their fields. Expertise is both their greatest asset and their worst defect. Lawyers don't have access to a holistic view on the business. But in-house counsels do. So, as a legal counsel it’s crucial that you become deeply knowledgeable about all important aspects of the business. You should be "your-company-in-all-of-its-complexities-specific".

  • Be profoundly curious about anything non-legal and radically generalist about anything legal - It may sound counter-intuitive, but you should try delegating matters you know most about and try doing by yourself matters you know less about. Delegating stuff you know allows you to double-check the work has been properly done. Doing stuff by yourself allows you to learn. You may feel intimidated to venture out of your comfort zone. But stretching the field is the most effective way to build a holistic view on all your legal operations.

  • From text to operations - As a lawyer, your work is delivered through text. Your job is complete the moment you hit "send" on an email with a document in attachment. As in-house lawyer, you deliver through operations. Once the document is ready, you take care of collecting the signatures and file the signed documents. You ping your sales team so they can go ahead with closing the customer, your HR team so they can fire a disgruntled employee and the company auditor to collect the certified annual accounts. You connect the dots between different transactions, enrich the company legal knowhow and update the contract management process. And as the matter lives on, you take care of the renewals, expiration dates, notices, etc. Operations is a brave new world, where execution trumps deliberation. It’s imperative to master your legal operations.

  • From individualistic performance to team performance - Law firms often say they value teamwork. But in reality, their economics are geared towards individualistic performance. Lawyers work on their own and then share their results for review as part of a fast-paced ballet called the "email back-and-forth". A lawyer's job is terrifyingly lonesome when contrasted with that of an in-house counsel. Suddenly, you are in the midst of a giant project, where legal is only one aspect. So many stakeholders are involved that coordination is key. Start by keeping tabs on who is working on what, both within your team and outside your organisation. Better yet, give others visibility on what you are working on, assign owners and deadlines and highlight blocking factors. Work as a team.

  • From a harsh environment to a supportive ecosystem - Life as a lawyer is tough. I'm still shivering from the memories of certain horror stories. From that time a friend of mine was forced by a manager to sleep at his desk (so he could be woken up in the middle of the night to finish off a deal) or that moment that junior version of myself burst in tears after my manager accused me of deliberately making errors in a draft. Those may have been outliers, but I never heard stories like these unfolding in an in-house context. And it's tempting to excuse bad behaviour on the nature of the work, but legal counsels are also under constant pressure. And they have to work hard too. However, companies manage to instill a supportive and positive attitude. This feels great. And when colleagues are supportive with you, you start becoming supportive with others. Be supportive! Show appreciation about someone else's work. You can use smileys now πŸ’ͺ

  • From "more hours means more earning" to "more hours means more spending" - Introducing the legal innovation dilemma. Since lawyers are paid by the hour, their economics are not geared towards efficiency. Most of the time, working less means earning less. By contrast, in a company, working less means spending less. Cost efficiency fuels innovation. If you're performing legal work for a second time, try to find a way to deliver it better, faster or cheaper. Build up your internal legal knowhow, so you don't recreate the same content over and over again. Turn specimens into templates. Use software to automate admin or recurring tasks and fast-track your legal operations. Spend less time to accomplish more. Innovate.

  • From a hand-grenade to a cluster-bomb - As a lawyer, your lack of organisation is self-inflicting. You realised too late that the deadline to prepare a draft was tomorrow? Well, you have the evening to make it right. Project management screwups have low impact on the work of others. But when you miss out on a deadline as legal counsel, many more people are impacted. Your lack of organisation detonates like a cluster-bomb within the company. This is why it is so important that you provide visibility on what you are doing. Be organised. Create processes. Start being serious at project managing your legal operations.

  • From a reactive stance to a proactive posture - Working as a lawyer may have been tough. But I sometimes recall how easy it actually was. When you work as an associate in a law firm, you get an assignment and work your way through it right before the deadline. You work long hours, agreed. But at least you know what to do. As a company lawyer, you have to set the agenda. And if it's easy to react, it's hard to be proactive. You are expected to build legal awareness and tools to accelerate the delivery of legal operations. You also need to find new ways to save on legal fees while reducing legal risks. You never stop thinking as there is always something to improve or to anticipate.

So, why do so many past lawyers struggle to adapt as in-house counsel?

Because it's easier to be a consultant and it's harder to be a leader.

The metamorphosis from consultant to leader is tough. Making the shift involves more than unlearning hard-wired habits. It requires you to radically change your ways of working.

And the shift is not easy to make.

But trust me ... it's worth it! πŸ™‚

After a year or so working as a "super legal consultant", I finally made the switch at eFounders, the startup studio I last worked at. For a change, I wanted to become a leader in my new role. So I've tweaked my ways of working to drive my legal operations more efficiently.

I have organised myself to think ahead of time, foster teamwork and contribute to a supportive ecosystem.

I'm also taking advantage of a handful of tools to assist me in my work. Chief among them is Canyon of course! In fact, I developed Canyon because I didn't find any effective solution to help me drive my legal operations. And using Canyon has been a game-changer for me.

I hope to dive deeper in my organisation and my toolbelt in another post. For those who can't wait, I'm happy to discuss this privately. 😊

The truth is I didn't change a whole lot.

A few tweaks have allowed me to enjoy my work much more and build up the confidence to become a leader in my job.

The biggest change I've made was in my mindset.

And that's all it takes to get you metamorphosed!

Turning to you, dear reader. I'm curious. πŸ™‚

Have you also struggled in your transition from law firm to company? Or are you still in the process of metamorphosing from a consultant to a leader?

Let's find out! Share your story in the comments below.

And if you think the article was useful, show it around by liking, commenting and sharing πŸ™Œ

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