Department of One: How to Succeed as a Solo In-House Counsel

  • November 12, 2020
  • KJ Chong

Department of One: How to Succeed as a Solo In-House Counsel

Many in-house counsel departments are small—44% have only one to four lawyers, according to the CCCA’s 2020 In-House Counsel Compensation & Career Survey Report. I fall into the “department of one” category.

While it may seem overwhelming at first to be the “loneliest number,” here are eight tips I have learned to help you survive and thrive as a solo practitioner or in a small department.

  1. Be prepared for the unknown. One of the most striking aspects is the steep learning curve. You will be asked about many different subjects, and you may not know how to answer everything. When you have more lawyers in your department, you may have the opportunity to have specialists in areas such as employment or contracts. When you are small, all the questions come to you.

    Earlier on, I found it difficult to admit I did not know certain things. When I discussed this with my CCCA mentor, who was 10 years my senior, he very simply pointed out, “How can you know that? I don’t know that either.”

    Giving yourself permission to not know and then find out, whether by your own research or discussing with others in your business or with external counsel, is the first and most important step. (That said, I would not recommend that the first answer out of an in-house counsel’s mouth always be “Let’s ask external counsel,” as you must prove your value.)
  1. Ask for help. In the cases where you don’t know the answer, you may wish to discuss it with others in your organization, even if they are not legally trained. They may be able to point you to the right area—whether it be a law, a regulation, a trade group or their previous experience dealing with a similar matter.

    In cases where you are short on time or resources, and the issue at hand is suitable, I’ve heard multiple small in-house departments lean on their business people to reduce some of the workload. For instance, if you are asked to review a contract, asking which specific clauses the person has concerns about may help laser in on what the real issues are, rather than making you the sole person accountable for knowing what is being agreed to. Understanding and letting others know when a request is too broad or teaching them about issues they can spot for themselves saves you precious time, which can then be used on higher-level issues.
  1. Be open to non-legal work. Some may disagree with me on this, but I think early on it is important to show a positive attitude and help where required even if it is not strictly legal in nature. This is part of building relationships that will help you in the future, and you might learn something more about internal processes that you otherwise would not know.

    Very early on, I was involved with bank account procedures in a foreign country. While part of me was reluctant to participate given that the work did not have much of a legal aspect to it, I was able to meet external persons who would be assisting us in future legal-oriented matters. This experience also allowed me to grasp the challenges my teammates were having and anticipate their needs in the future, and helped me to integrate more quickly into the team.
  1. Obtain the research resources you need. I’m always shocked when in-house counsel tell me they don’t have access to the research capabilities, secondary sources and law that they used to have at private firms. This might stem from their employer’s misunderstanding of what the law is and how we do our work. We know that decisions must be based on legislation, contractual interpretation, case law and other guidance materials. Googling the law doesn’t quite work and you must communicate this to decision makers.

    If these research capabilities are not in your budget for some reason, I would recommend the following:
  • Subscribe to legal bulletins. For those of us who work in international matters, I find these very helpful to understand new developments in places where you may not have external counsel relationships. A great resource in the CCCA are the Mondaq Advice Centres, with their automated news alerts.
  • Create your own precedents. Ask colleagues for precedent documents. Use counterparty documents to help design your own. You will learn as you go along but it gives you a starting point.
  1. Be organized. Because my company does not have an official document management system, mine involves creating general categories and a numbering system to match them. I include this in most of my email subject lines, and I have a running matter list along with to-do’s. The ability to be able to find something you have worked on previously is essential to being efficient with time.
  1. Understand when you need to use external counsel. As a solo in-house counsel, you may see external counsel as help with workload, but I would recommend digging deeper to see why you need them. For instance, do you need a second viewpoint and more expertise? A careful understanding will guide your decisions on when you use them.

    If you call on external counsel mainly for workload help, this may open a discussion on building out the internal legal team to help save costs and further ensure work is aligned with a firm understanding of your business. If you need the second opinion or sounding board, it helps define why your role is there—to be a bridge, translating issues between internal and external parties.
  1. Be practical. Rather than being risk averse and assuming catastrophe will occur, recognize there is an optimistic side to consider and hone your probability skills. This may facilitate discussions with business people, and rather than being known as the department of “no,” you can be the department of “how”—that is, how can we do this so it works for everyone? As in-house counsel and advisor to the business, you may have a better assessment on the risk of a particular issue or the tolerance of the organization.
  1. Accept you are not perfect. Sometimes the fast answer is what is needed. Being solo means you won’t be able to look at every detail and that is fine. At times, it is more important to get a deal done or decide the next move in a litigation without having all the evidence. Striving for perfection is more of a recipe for unnecessary anxiety than performance improvement. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.

Being a one- (or few-) person show can be challenging, but it also gives you a lot of latitude and exposure to issues. Relationship-building internally and externally is necessary—and easier—because you do not have a large internal legal team to turn to. All in all, it’s a great opportunity for career development and growth, and I would recommend anyone considering such a position to go for it.

KJ Chong is General Counsel at BroadGrain Commodities Inc. Connect with her on LinkedIn.