Ten Things: How In-House Lawyers Can Survive and Thrive in Times of Uncertainty and Change

I do a lot of speaking with and presenting to in-house lawyers and legal departments.  It’s something I really enjoy doing because I get to share my “wisdom” with everyone (which is just a fancy word for “oldness”).  By this I mean I have been around a while and have spent most of my working years as an in-house lawyer.  And, like anyone who has completed the solar elliptical as many times as I have, I’ve dealt with a lot of different things as an in-house lawyer – some good, some bad, and some still defying categorization years later.  On the bad side of the continuum, I was there for the first internet tech bubble (and the second), along with the mortgage meltdown crisis.  I was in the travel business right after 9-11.  I have been through natural disasters, multiple layoffs, budget cuts, reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, sales, going private, going public, and all the rest of it.  I oversaw bet the company litigation, where literally the livelihoods of 10,000+ employees depended on my team not losing a piece of litigation.  And most terrifying, I had a front-row seat for the incredibly shitty ending to Game of Thrones.  That is a season of television I can never get back.  Damn you, HBO.  Damn you to hell!  Sorry, I got off on a rant there.  Allow me to (cough) refocus.

So, here we are again.  Things feel shaky with the economy and there is a good bit of unease out there in the business world and, therefore, in the in-house legal departments that serve those businesses.  I wrote about some of it last month in my post on things to watch out for in 2023.  But even more so, over the past few months, I have been consistently asked to talk about/present on how in-house lawyers can succeed in an environment of change and uncertainty.  So much so that a couple of nights ago (as I was NOT watching HBO), I started putting some real thought into the question and realized that I have a lot to say about it (shock!).  So, this edition of “Ten Things” will discuss some of the things in-house lawyers (and legal departments) can do to survive and thrive in times of change and uncertainty:[1]

1.  Get used to it.   Sorry – especially for those younger in-house lawyers who maybe have only experienced the frothy economic goodness of the last several years – but the good times never last.  In business, things must change or stagnate.  Sometimes change is self-inflicted, sometimes it is imposed by outside forces, and often it is a combination. There will always be tough times and you need to be constantly on the lookout for signs of when things are turning south.  Sometimes it’s easy to see, other times it sneaks up on you like the hockey-mask-wearing villain of a teen-slasher movie.  That’s never good (at least based on the movies I have seen).  The important part is to always be thinking about what you – and your team – will do when things get tough.  Regardless of how it comes about, as a member of the legal department pouting is not an option.  While it is scary, uncertainty is full of opportunity.  Embrace it and prepare yourself for how to succeed when things go sideways.

2.  The four keys to success in hard times.   When faced with a challenging business environment and the inevitable craziness that the world presents to you as an in-house lawyer, there are four questions you must ask yourself in order to succeed and how you respond to them is determinative of your success:

I know these seem a bit simple, but trust me, you will be glad that you (and your team) are focused on the right questions when times get tough.  What follows below, are the things I feel help you best answer these four questions.

3.  Keep a sense of humor.   When times get weird and uncertain, when there are days when you feel like your head is stuck in a 50-ton pneumatic press, or when you wish you were anywhere else than where you are right now, a sense of humor is your lifeline.  The job of in-house counsel is tough enough without having the ability to laugh at yourself or your situation.  The humor may be dark at times, but dark humor is way better than dark thoughts.  Finding the lighter side of even the most daunting situations will serve you well on good days and bad.  Your colleagues and clients will appreciate it too.  People want to be around and work with people who can project positivity even during hard times.  Don’t overdo it though.  A little humor can go a long way.  And sometimes humor just isn’t the way to go.  As much as no one wants Pennywise from Stephen King’s “IT” showing up to pull them down into the sewer drain, Bozo the Clown is unwelcome too.  So, learn to calibrate your humor and know when it is appropriate or not.  But, a sense of humor is your armor, so strap it on!  For more, see my “Ten Things” post on how in-house lawyers can reduce stress (in a very stressful job).

4.  Huddle up!  For this one, I must assume that you are not a solo general counsel (though even if you are, you can probably find a way to apply this one).  When things get scary or tough in the animal kingdom, what do most animals do?  They gather together because there is strength in numbers.  It’s no different in the dog-eat-dog world of business.  When things start to go to shit, huddle up and band together.  It is much easier to face and deal with what’s coming when you are united with your colleagues.  Start with making sure you have actually spent some time with everyone in the department (in-person or at least over Teams or Zoom).  Set up a 30-minute meeting where you each get to ask one question, “How did you get here?”  That one question will allow each person to tell the other about their journey to the legal department and you will find afterward that everything is better between the two of you.  Try it!  The team should do these things too:

  • Communicate frequently with each other.  No more hiding out.  Work hard at becoming a real team.
  • Ask for help when you need and be willing to help when your colleagues need you.
  • Celebrate wins and achievements – big and small, work-related or in life.  You are a family.  Families celebrate each other.
  • Emphasize the well-being of each other.  If you see someone struggling or if something isn’t right, ask how you can help.  Be kind to each other.
  • Agree on priorities for the department (for the week, the month, and the year).  Things are easier when everyone understands where they must focus and everyone is pulling in the same direction.
  • Be flexible and roll with the punches.  Not everything is going to go your way every time or every day.  And that’s okay.
  • Keep it all in perspective.  Sure, some days at work are really hard and sometimes even unfair or overly crazy, but in the end, you will be fine – even if it’s somewhere else.

See my “Ten Things” post on the value of huddle meetings as a way to accomplish a lot of the above.

5.  Enhance and expand your skill set.  Who are the most valuable players on any sports team?  The players who can do more than one thing.  The same is true in-house.  To showcase your value to the department and the company, consider how you can a) enhance the skills you already have (e.g., contracts, litigation, intellectual property) and b) expand or create skills in new areas.  For example, if you are a commercial contracts lawyer, can you also learn data privacy?  If you are a litigator, can you pick up immigration law or employment law skills?  The short answer is you can – and you should.  Every lawyer can learn new skills.  My best friend while in-house was the West Academic “In a Nutshell” series, i.e., short books that give you a basic understanding of the law in any particular area.[2]  This is how I learned immigration and bankruptcy law.  Was I an expert after reading these books?  Of course not, but I learned the basics and, over time, I developed deeper skills in new areas of the law (and the confidence that I could learn just about anything needed to thrive in-house) – something that served me well when times got tough – or when they were looking for a general counsel with broad legal experience.  Additionally, learning a new legal area means you can help your colleagues by taking some of the load when they get stretched (something that can work both ways).  And don’t limit your development to what work is currently coming into the legal department.  Think about where the company will be in five years and whether you (and your team) have the necessary skills to support the business then.  If not, use the long runway to start to build out those skills.  See my “Ten Things” post on succession planning for more.

6.  Be practical.  There are so many things that I think in-house lawyers should do when faced with challenging and uncertain economic times, but being “practical” is at the top of the list.  To go deeper on this see my “Ten Things” post on how to be a practical in-house lawyer.  But, for purposes of today’s topic of succeeding during hard times, I think you can break down being practical as follows:

  • Be practical with your advice.  In-house lawyers who give practical advice that works in the real world and takes into consideration the business realities and strategy of the company are highly valued.  Lawyers who make everything a slog and get wrapped up in a myriad of unlikely hypothetical “on the other hand” rat holes are… well, less than desirable.
  • Be practical with risk.  My personal belief is that lawyers, especially in-house lawyers, are often way too risk-averse and can unnecessarily slow down the business by getting hung up on things the business simply doesn’t care about or is willing to live with.  If the business is fully informed and the right person is making the decision, then get out of the way and learn to live with more risk than you may otherwise be comfortable with.  Legal doesn’t run the business so find ways to “yes” (even when your lawyer brain may be saying “no”).
  • Be practical with your time.   In-house lawyers are an incredibly valuable resource to the business.  Yet, many in-house lawyers excel at wasting time in unnecessary meetings, unnecessary perfection, and failing to delegate.  Every minute counts and any time you can free up to focus on the most valuable work coming into the department is crucial when times are tough and scrutiny of the legal department is peaking.  Learn to say “no” to meetings where a meeting isn’t needed or your attendance is not required.  I call this escaping meeting hell.   Likewise, learn when good enough is, in fact, good enough and move on.  Perfection in drafting is rarely necessary, yet many lawyers love to spend precious time on tasks like word choice, tweaking punctuation, and formatting.  Recognize when a “C” will do and save your “A” game (and the hours it requires) for the projects requiring that level of effort (and if you can create a template that can be re-used, even better).  Lastly, learn how to delegate.  The fact that you can do something perfectly is great.  But, having someone who has mastered something do it over and over again is great for the assembly line at Ford Motor Company, but it is terrible for an in-house legal department.  Teach the next person how to do it and then go spend your time on more important work or learning how to do something new.  That is when real value is created.

7.  It’s the budget, dummy.  Of course, when times get tough, one of the first things the business focuses on is costs.  And, since the legal department is traditionally thought of as a cost-center by the business, it is wearing a huge “Cut My Budget!” sign around its neck.  Hopefully, you have spent a lot of time before the tough times hit showing the value of the legal department and making friends with the finance team.  But, even if that has been the case, the odds of escaping budget cuts and headcount cuts when the business goes south (or thinks it is going south) are low. Very low.  So, when times get tough, smart in-house lawyers are proactively looking at ways to cut costs – even if no one has asked them to do so (yet).  Here are several things to do:

  • Review every spending item in your budget, from outside counsel costs to pens and paper.  Decide what things you could stop spending money on if asked to make cuts.  Anything discretionary should be first on the chopping block, e.g., patent applications, travel, litigation where the company is the plaintiff, new technology, etc.  These are the easiest cuts because you don’t have to spend the money.
  • Rethink outside counsel spending, i.e., are you sending matters out that you could handle internally?  Are you finding the right firm at the right price to handle the matter?  Don’t just default to sending things to the firms you always use.  If there is time, put larger matters or panel counsel consideration out for RFPs.  Consider using alternative legal service providers for some work.  Sitting still is not an option here, so feel empowered to rethink everything about how and why you send work outside.
  • Emphasize alternative fee arrangements.  Look for discounts, caps, fixed fees, retainers, blended rates, success fees, contingency fees, rate freezes, and all the rest.  Relying solely on the “rack rate” billable hour is a sucker’s game.  Don’t play it.  You can do better if you just ask.
  • Make it a group effort.  It’s hard to cut costs without creating a palpable sense of unease within the legal department.  To counter this, bring everyone in the department into the discussions around what can/should be cut.  Share the plan with your team and they will feel much better about what’s going on – and less likely to jump ship because the lack of information is causing them to think their job may be in jeopardy.  The added benefit of looping in others is that they will likely have good (maybe better) ideas about where cost savings can be found.

8.  Prioritize properly.  As the business starts to tighten things up and the likelihood of having to do more with less once again rears its ugly head, you must learn how to prioritize work properly.  First, there are only so many hands available in the department.  You want to make sure you fill those hands with the most important and highest value work possible.  You can’t do everything, so do what matters most first.  Second, have a system in place to help you decide what gets done first in a world of limited resources.  I like to use a 2×2 Eisenhower Matrix.  You have seen them before – the business uses them all the time.  Here is one from my book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department:  More Than Just a Cost Center:


Basically, you plot your tasks (and/or the department’s tasks) in one of the four boxes, using different levels of importance and urgency to place them.  The more important and urgent, the more immediate attention it should get.  Items in the upper right are where you should spend most (but not necessarily all) of your time while the lower left gets the least amount of attention.  It will be challenging to do at first, but over time you’ll get better and more precise.  Yes, it’s a simple tool but it is highly effective.  Third, it’s great if the legal department can master the 2×2 but if it only focuses on the items it believes are important there is likely to be a disconnect at some point between what the legal department is prioritizing and what the business believes are the priorities.  The solution?  Ask them and then align your/and the department’s priorities with those of the business to the extent possible.  How did I do this?  Every Monday I would send an email to a group of the most senior leaders in the company and ask them what were their top two priorities for the legal department for the coming week.  I would bring those priorities to our huddle meetings (see above) and made sure that a) we were working on those priorities, b) we considered whether we needed to add these priorities to our team 2×2 matrix, or, c) as was sometimes the case, figure out if there were conflicting priorities requiring us to ask the business to decide what it wanted us to focus on (because the legal department cannot do everything, especially when spending is restricted).  This helped my team align with the business, showed the business that its priorities were our priorities, and it gave us cover when we needed to tell people that their project was lower in the pecking order because their boss had told us to focus on something else.

9.  Adapt.  Lawyers can be stubborn creatures.  Doing things a certain way day after day will do that to a person.  While this “shampoo-rinse-repeat” mode is admirable and, under many circumstances, productive, it can be a 10-ton millstone around your neck as an in-house lawyer when times get tough.  Look around you.  You likely see every other part of the business constantly seeking to change, and improve how they do their jobs better, faster, and more efficiently.  Where does the legal department fit in with this dynamic?  Probably not very well.  Why?  Because lawyers are generally resistant to change and many still think of the legal department as “different” and entitled to some special treatment or deference because “we’re Legal, dammit!”  This inflexibility is most unwelcome by business leaders generally, but especially when the company is in crisis or is trying to quickly change course to deal with anticipated headwinds.  To put it bluntly, the legal department is not special and deserves no special consideration above and beyond what any other part of the business can expect – no better (and no worse).  Consequently, to succeed during tough times, everyone in the department needs to be flexible and ready to adapt to whatever comes over the transom.  A legal department that is nimble and can adapt and roll with the changes is a legal department that can grow along with the business come what may. Most importantly, make sure the business knows you can and are adapting and changing as the needs of the business and circumstances require (even when times are not tough).  Tout change!  If the business knows that the legal team is at the cutting edge of change, it will be less likely to force change on it.

10.  Soft skills matter even more.  It’s easy to take things out on people you don’t like.  Not so much when you think highly of someone.  This is why soft skills matter so much during times of uncertainty and change.  While the legal department will probably not escape all pain, the pain will be less if the business leaders like and admire the people in the legal department.  Soft skills are one of the (many) things not taught in law school as they have very little to do with the law and a lot to do with how you interact with people, i.e., your clients.  It starts with executive presence (and the skills mentioned above), but it boils down to the following soft skills that everyone on the legal team should master (or at least get a whole lot better at):

And, perhaps the most important soft skill of all, having a positive attitude.  You cannot control everything going on around you, but you can control how you respond.  You can see the glass as half empty or half full.  It’s up to you.  I’ve always been a half-full person (even when I think the glass has a hole in the bottom).  If the business sees you (and the team) as employees who have embraced the challenges rather than bitch about them, things will go better – over the short term and the long term.  So, pick the ones that matter most in your situation and start honing.


Well, there you have it.  My tips for how best to survive and thrive in times of uncertainty and change.  It’s not easy and it is often unpleasant, but dealing with bad times comes with the job.  If everything was easy with endless candy and ice cream, you’d be in kindergarten and not in the business world.  When tough times come (and they may already be here), you can fight change – which is like fighting the ocean – or you can embrace it and get on with the things you need to do to adapt and survive.  It’s up to you and the members of the legal department.  If you are the leader, set the example and prepare your team for what they need to do.  If you are part of the team, be a good teammate and bring your best self and best attitude to the job every day.  If you do these things, you will easily survive whatever craziness fate has in store for you.

Sterling Miller

February 28, 2023

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available now, including as an eBook!  As the ABA says, “A can of soup and this book are all any in-house lawyer needs to survive hard times.”  The ABA knows about survival.  Get some soup and buy this book!  You can buy it HERE.

Cover of Value Book

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale now at the ABA website (including as e-books).

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“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, or ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net, or if you would like a CLE for your in-house legal team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

[1] Note that “times of change and uncertainty” is just a polite way of saying everything has gone to shit, budgets are being slashed, and people are getting laid off.  It’s the business version of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.”  My job here is to teach you how best to avoid the guillotine.

[2] I am not sure what the international equivalents are of this series, but I suspect there is something similar in multiple jurisdictions around the globe.


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