This may explain many things about my personality but I have always gone to work feeling like I could get fired any day and at any time. I am not sure why that is the case (and I am not particularly interested in lying on a couch and talking it out). I just accept that it’s how I am. The fear of getting fired has always driven me to find ways to not get fired. Ultimately, I settled on always trying to be the most valuable member of any legal team I was part of. I figured that the last person to get fired (short of bringing a handgun to the office and taking some potshots at the boss) is the most valuable person on the team, i.e., the “indispensable” MVP. And that mentality generally served me well over the past 30 years or so (though there is a fine line between making yourself valuable and being a sap – and Mrs. Ten Things thinks I may have drifted over the line on occasion). As I look around this never-ending pandemic, Covid-y world, I can imagine that many in-house lawyers may be feeling the same type of anxiety, especially if your company is not exactly thriving in the current economic climate. But, even if that is not the case, I have spent a good part of the past six months or so writing about how legal departments can show their value to the organization. How individual members of the department can do the same is a natural extension of that theme and a worthy goal. This edition of “Ten Things” sets out some ways you can work to make yourself “indispensable” to the legal team and the company:
1. Get in the lifeboat. I am going to let you in on a little secret. Every general counsel with a handful or more of employees already has a mental list in their head about who they would keep and who is expendable if they ever needed to make such a call. It’s not a pleasant thing to have in your head – even less pleasant to ever have to act on. I called it the “lifeboat,” as in who’s in the lifeboat with me if things go horribly wrong. This was the group of “have to have” people for the department to function at the minimal level needed to keep the lights on. Unless you don’t really care (and good for you if you have that luxury), you want to do what you can to make sure you are one of those people in the boat. Below are a number of ways to help ensure you are sitting comfortably in the boat vs. sinking slowing to the bottom of the icy North Atlantic like Leonardo at the end of Titanic. Bottom-line: Don’t be Leonardo DiCaprio. Be Kate Winslet!
2. Impress the boss. I hope this is not a revelation for many of you, but the single most important person when it comes to being “indispensable” is your boss (and your boss’ boss – see No.1 above). No matter how many hours you put in, how much your colleagues love you, that you volunteer for company-sponsored charitable activities, or whether you chair the local chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, it won’t mean much if the boss doesn’t care or is not impressed. If she thinks you are valuable then you are pretty well set, if she doesn’t then you’re near the front of the line for the job guillotine if it comes to that. When it comes to impressing the boss, doing good work and putting in the hours are table stakes. You also need to be able to “read” your boss, because your value is subjective – perceptions matter. One easy way to read the boss is to mimic their habits. Match their hours, dress like they dress, read what they read, etc. You can either pick this up by being really observant, but you can also ask her, i.e., “what would you like my office hours to be?” “Are there things I should be reading to be more valuable to the department?” Some bosses even write it out for you, “here are my expectations for the department.” If they do that for you, just follow the instructions. It’s that simple. Sadly, I have seen enough employees in my time who ignore the easy path – potentially punching their ticket on the slow ride to the bottom of the sea. Another place to impress the boss is during your 1:1 meetings with her (and if you haven’t already, read my post on 1:1 meetings). Never pass up a chance to meet with the boss and always be properly prepared for all such opportunities – each one is a chance to impress. Bottom-line: The number one item on your to-do list every day is “keep the boss happy.”
3. Don’t be the problem. One way to keep the boss happy is to not be the “problem.” This means that you are doing good work, meeting deadlines, keeping your word, “cheerfully” doing the administrative crap that comes with being an in-house lawyer, showing up for meetings on time and prepared, not complaining about every little thing that doesn’t go 100% the way you think it should go, and so forth. If you think about what takes up a manager’s day, you know the last thing they want to do is deal with problem children – following up on late assignments, chasing people to do things, dealing with complaints about behavior or petty offenses. You don’t want your name associated with any of those issues. Valuable attorneys are the ones that are easy to manage. A corollary here is “worry about yourself.” There is little more frustrating for a manager then dealing with employees who are asking “why does [insert name] get to [insert whatever] and I don’t?” In short, there are probably circumstances you are not privy to. If there is something you need, ask for yourself, “Would it be possible for me to …” Limit the times you go to the boss with “it’s unfair that ….” The same goes for promotions, etc. If you think you should be promoted, make the case for yourself on your merits. Don’t go in with “Jane is a vice-president, I should be one too then.” That’s not going to get you very far. Bottom-line: The most valuable lawyers make life easy for the boss, the department, and the company – don’t be the problem. For more, check out my post on in-house career killers.
4. Be the expert. I waivered here a bit. I am a firm believer that in-house lawyers should be partial “generalists” and able to deal on the fly with whatever comes up. Those who can do that are certainly pretty valuable. But, when push comes to shove, if you are the lone expert in an area of the law that is critical to the company/legal department, you have greatly increased your odds of being “indispensable.” For example, there may be several attorneys who do litigation, but only one who also handles all the e-discovery issues and has mastered that area of litigation. As a general counsel, I would find a litigator + e-discovery expert hard to lose. Similarly, if my company is publicly traded, having someone who has mastered the day-to-day of the corporate secretary function is pretty important too. Same for data privacy/security. The more the company needs the skill the better set you are in terms of surviving any type of layoff or reduction in force. For commercial agreements, I’d focus on being the expert of the more complex agreements, i.e., those agreements that are typically heavily negotiated and deal with issues not easily learned. It’s the hard stuff that matters, not the easy things that anyone can do. Likewise, if you can make yourself invaluable to a leader of the business, i.e., the person she turns to when she needs legal help, that can be a tremendous plus in your favor as they will likely be talking to your boss about how indispensable you are to them and their team. Also, make sure the boss knows you are an expert. Offer to do a presentation for the department or the business on your area of expertise, and/or look for opportunities to use your skill for a new initiative (department or business). Bottom-line: Being the only person who truly understands an area of the law critical to the department (or a company leader) is a big plus mark in your ledger.
5. Think like an “owner.” There is nothing special about showing up and doing your job. That’s what you get paid to do. Unlike soccer for 5-year old’s, there are no participation trophies for in-house lawyers. To make the right impression, you need to think and act like an owner of the business, not like a cog-in-the-machine W-2 employee. Owners work their asses off and are constantly worried about all the details and all the things that need to get done. If they aren’t, then their business fails. Employees can – and usually do care – but only the rare ones go above and beyond the day-to-day requirements of the job. You can bet big money that those sitting in the C-Suite have developed “owner” mentalities and that is why they are where they are – and they want employees around them who think that same way. In-house lawyers that go above and beyond, show initiative, and constantly strive to generate value (for the department and the company), are the ones with the most value and closest to being indispensable. Here are a few things to consider when trying to think like an owner:
- How do I maximize productivity with a minimal amount of resources?
- Am I spending the company’s money in the most cost-efficient way?
- Am I thinking about the long term and coming up with new ideas, or just dealing with the specific problem on my desk today?
- Do I prioritize my work properly and focus on what’s truly important?
- Am I developing others?
- Do I delegate effectively?
- Do I tackle problems head-on and when they arise (or am I looking for someone else to deal with it)?
- Am I looking out for things to fix?
- Do I just “clock in and out” or do I take action when things need to get done outside the 9-to-5 work-week?
- Am I using “downtime” to improve my skills and abilities or am I crushing candy on my phone?
- Do I need to always be told what to do and how to do it?
There is, of course, more to it than the above (just search online) but, hopefully, you’ll start to see the framework of thinking like an owner vs. like an employee. Bottom-line: In-house lawyers who think and act like owners are far more valuable than those who don’t.
6. Live for feedback. Above I note that the most important person to impress is your boss. Do you know what impresses your boss? Getting unsolicited feedback about you from satisfied clients. Believe me, they love reading it! Do you know what else bosses like? Employees who are coachable and welcome feedback. While you cannot generally control if the feedback is positive or negative you can a) encourage people (clients, managers, colleagues in the department) to give you feedback simply by asking them for it (e.g., “please let me know how you thought I did on this project and if there is anything I can do better”), and b) make sure your boss knows you welcome their feedback, positive or negative, and that you want to hear both because that will help you improve. I have written that many managers are afraid to give negative feedback because they are concerned they might hurt your feelings or no longer be the “cool manager” everyone likes. This is actually the worst thing a manager can do (and more on this, perhaps, in a future post). Getting feedback is the only way any of us can improve. Everyone has things they can work on. Proactively encouraging your boss to let you know the good and the bad and that you’ll take either in stride and with the right attitude will pay off. Similarly, when you finish working on a project (or when it gets near review time), ask your business clients if they have any feedback for you and what you did well and what you can do better. Ask them to feel free to send their thoughts to your manager, good or bad. While the odds are high that they will only pass along positive feedback to the boss, the negative feedback can be more beneficial to your long-term career than hearing nothing but kudos. And let your manager know that you encouraged clients to send her feedback about your performance, good or bad (that is a trait she will value). Bottom-line: Managers love employees who seek out and accept feedback with the right mindset. Gathering feedback about yourself – and using it to improve – should be a priority.
7. Be generous. I know this one is hard, especially when you are already buried under a mountain of things to do every day. But, your manager, your colleagues, and your clients will value you even more when you are generous with your time, concern, and knowledge. Again, this is the difference between being a worker bee and being something “more” than that. It can be as simple as just asking your boss or colleagues if there is anything you can do to help them or the department (including taking on additional responsibilities). It can be as formal as being part of a department or company mentoring program to help younger employees get a leg up. Sometimes it’s a client with a request like “do you know any attorneys who can help me with a will?” and you taking the time to help them find one. Or offering to review a memo or PowerPoint with a client before their big presentation, to help them hone the document and practice their pitch. I also put being “inclusive” in this bucket because nothing makes a better impression than an in-house attorney going out of their way to make sure everyone at a meeting is heard, introducing themselves to someone new to the company or who is otherwise attending a meeting of unfamiliar faces, or asking someone on the sidelines to join in with whatever is going on. Your willingness to make time to help others is also a great way to expand your network at work (and even outside of work if you’re forward-thinking). While the boss is the most important person to impress, impressing others – who will likely mention you to the boss – is another way to increase your value. Being generous doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it does take a conscious effort. Bottom-line: Being generous with your time at work (within limits) will pay off in multiples as the goodwill you generate will build your reputation within and outside the legal department.
8. Keep learning. Another way to increase your value is to keep learning new skills and honing those you already possess. On your own (or by asking the boss) figure out what skills are underserved in the department today or will be needed several years down the road and start developing or enhancing your knowledge in these areas. Make sure your manager knows you are doing this so they a) can help you find the right programs or materials, b) keep you in mind as projects/need arises, and c) know what a kick-ass employee they have on their hands! Likewise, don’t fall behind in your own area of expertise. If you are a litigator, keep current with important cases and developments in the jurisdictions where the company is most likely to find itself in litigation. If you are a corporate attorney, keep updated on best practices for drafting commercial agreements. If there is technology that can help you or the department to the job done better, explore that, and then bring your ideas forward (and your willingness to help). Your ideas may not get adopted, but they will be appreciated. Finally, stay up to speed on the company and read everything you can get your hands on about the business, its financials, the marketplace, competitors, key customers and vendors, etc. Doing so will help you move beyond being just a lawyer and become more strategic in your thinking. That is something highly valued inside and outside the department. Bottom-line: Never stop learning – be proactive in finding the next “need” for the department and capture that space for yourself first. Learn to think strategically and not just legally – be a counselor, not just a lawyer.
9. Be positive. One of the easiest, least expensive, and least time-consuming ways to enhance your value is to simply be positive. Find ways to keep your sense of humor and smile. Be friendly and approachable, someone your colleagues and clients like to be around and work with. Embrace change and all those goofy ideas that rise to the surface every few years at most corporations. The easier path is to say, “this is stupid” and shut down, even be passive-aggressive about whatever the new initiative of the month is. The harder, but far more productive path, is to give everything a fair shot even if – on the surface at least – it seems like an utter waste of time and doomed to fail. It may be but trust me – the higher-ups are going to be looking for the people who are at least trying to make it work – as well as those who are overly negative or disengaged. Guess who is more highly valued? Yep. That’s right. And that can be you! Just bring that smile to the office (or Zoom) every day. Keep complaining to a minimum. And remember the basics: say “please” and “thank-you,” offer solutions when you raise problems, and always ask “how can I help you?” Bottom-line: Negative people are usually not the first people promoted and, over time, tend to get shown the door. Positive people move up and stay on.
10. No one is indispensable. Wow. Kind of killed the mood a bit here didn’t I? But I have to be honest with you. Other than the founder of a start-up, absolutely no one is indispensable to any company. Think of it this way – if you (or anyone at the company) got hit by a bus tomorrow or just left for a new job would the legal department or company grind to a halt and never recover? Nope. There may be some hiccups, but eventually (and pretty quickly actually) the workplace would find a way to keep moving forward without you, remembering you fondly when they find that sack lunch from 2018 you left in the back of the breakroom refrigerator. I have seen it first-hand enough times to know this is true (not the moldering sack lunch, the other part). But, it does serve you well to be someone your boss/the company would truly hate to lose and will make extra efforts to retain. Which also underscores that you never know when opportunity will come knocking at your door. Always keep your resume and LinkedIn profile current just in case. Bottom-line: No one is really indispensable, but you can make yourself extremely valuable and hard to replace – and that’s a winning move any day of the week for more reasons than one.
All of the above assumes you want to make yourself indispensable. If you are a legal department of one, you pretty much are (though that may not be that awesome). Otherwise, it takes a lot of work (or at least extra work) and it doesn’t happen overnight. That said, looking back over the above, I realize that if you just do just some of these on a regular basis you will likely move yourself into the “Top 10%” of the legal team in terms of value generated for the legal department and the company. Being part of that group is a big step toward becoming an “indispensable” in-house lawyer and certainly someone your manager – and the company – would hate to lose (and will likely do more to see that you stick around). Still, there are no guarantees. Regardless, doing some or all will also make you a better lawyer and colleague (and will help make your job more interesting and fun). As always, it’s up to you to do the things needed to advance and protect your career and take advantage of opportunities to shine (and making sure those that matter know what you’re doing). Good luck … and stay in the boat!
September 30, 2020
Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2 is out. It’s my second book based on this blog series. As the ABA says, “All in-house lawyers need to own this book!” The ABA is smart. Click here to buy it.
I have three published three other books: Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies, The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant. I am also available for speaking engagements, coaching, training, and consulting.
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“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only. It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. If you have questions or comments, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Though now that I think it about it, it may have its roots in the one time I did get fired – while in college from a job working at a video arcade in Lincoln, Nebraska. Cold-hearted bastards. I still have some issues about how all that went down!
 Check out my post Ten Things: Looking for a New In-House Job.
Another great article, Sterling. If I had read this earlier in my career, I would have been more “agreeable” with my boss, when he was about to make some horrible decisions. 🙂
Thank you Frank! That agreeable part can be tough. And the dentist wondered why I ground my teeth…
Being able to accept feedback, and even seek it out, is crucial! Constructive criticism often causes people to get defensive rather than see opportunities for growth. Great post!