Ten Things: How to be a Successful In-House Counsel

Whether you are new to the in-house department or a long-term veteran, the General Counsel or just a basic contract lawyer, there are a number of things that can help make you more successful in your career.  I have distilled a lot of hard-learned lessons into ten key tips.  These are not exhaustive and there are always more, but these are the ten things I consistently taught to my teams over the years.

  1. Learn the business. Make time to talk with your client and really understand what it is your company does. If you know how the company makes money, you can draft, defend, and advise much better.
  2. Say it and write it as simply as possible – get to the bottom-line asap. Business people are not interested in the arcane or minutiae.  They just want the answer.
  3. Keep a sense of humor. Will serve you well on good days and bad, and your clients will appreciate it.
  4. Don’t let the boss be surprised. Whoever you report to should be fully informed of anything of importance you are working on.  It’s not a great day when the General Counsel hears about a legal issue for the first time from one of the business folks.  Similarly, if the first time the Board of Directors hears about a problem is when it’s in the press, that’s not a good day either.
  5. Listen (listen more than you talk) – make sure you understand what your client is asking/telling you and don’t be afraid to ask questions (but pick your spots in meetings)
  6. Deliver bad news and good news fairly and honestly. Keep an even keel.  Don’t hide or exaggerate. This will build trust between you and the business.
  7. Communicate frequently. Don’t let the client have to ask you about status.  Keep them up to date.  Even if you are only telling them that their project is simply still on the pile.  They will appreciate you taking the time to keep them posted.  And be sure to promptly reply to emails or calls from your clients.  Even if you’re just letting them know you are busy but will get back in touch soon
  8. Know your numbers. Know your budget, even if you only are in charge of one matter.  Know what you are spending and why.  And be able to explain why you picked the law firm you did for this project.  Also, learn how to read a balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement.  Learn the language of business.
  9. Step up when the opportunity presents itself. Big litigation.  Big contract.  Big M&A deal.  All of these are opportunities for you to show your stuff.  Your boss, the CEO, the Board, will all appreciate hearing you say “I’ll take care of it” and then deliver.  Take the time to think through what needs to be done and get moving.
  10. There’s never enough money, time, or people.  Get used to it.  No one is doubling your budget or looking to add more lawyers.  You are part of a cost center. Costs are for cutting.  This is never going to change.  So figure out how to work with what you have and focus on how you (or your team) can get more done, get the important stuff done, and get things done more efficiently.


  1. Hi Sterling, I think this is a great post. I wanted to focus mainly on the point you made when you referred to the department as a cost center “You are part of a cost center. Costs are for cutting. This is never going to change. So figure out how to work with what you have and focus on how you (or your team) can get more done, get the important stuff done, and get things done more efficiently.” I agree that most departments are a cost center, but those that are more technologically advanced seem to become more of a business partner in the corporation. I think with the steady availability of advanced matter management/ e-billing solutions there is an opportunity for corporate legal departments to add more value to the business and slowly eliminate the reputation for being a cost center. What are your thoughts?


    1. Hi Kaitlin – I think you are dead on. In my Feb 6 post (and generally in a lot of posts) I hit a lot of the points you make (see https://sterlingmiller2014.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/ten-things-increasing-efficiency-in-the-legal-department-through-technology/). The smart in-house lawyers are embracing technology and looking for ways to link deep into the business as a partner vs. a scrivner. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.


      1. Wonderful follow up. Thanks for the post, it could not have been more correct. If you know of any corporate legal departments looking to implement a matter management/ e-billing solution feel free so send them my way, I would love to be of assistance.


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