Fortune One First-Year Becoming an In-House Attorney

Vol. 16 No. 5


Fern Carty is Counsel at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. in Bentonville, AR. She practices healthcare law and supports the Walmart U.S. Health & Wellness business. Her email address is:

The path to becoming an in-house attorney for any company generally requires at least a few years of private practice experience. So what do you do if you find yourself at the doorstep of your very first client, which also happens to be a Fortune One corporation? We have all heard the saying “law school will not prepare you to be a lawyer.” This adage generally refers to the soft skills vital to being an effective advocate, such as the interpersonal competence necessary for building clientele and the political savvy essential to stay in the running for partner. What then are the interpersonal and professional skills helpful to a successful in-house career? Here are a few best practices that will help any lawyer new to in-house practice navigate a corporate legal environment.

·         Learn About Your Practice Area. Central to professional development is maintaining proficiency in your practice area. Many corporations are comprised of a variety of business units that require specific legal expertise. Actively seek out opportunities to learn more about the law particular to your practice area.

·         Learn the Business. To be an effective and valuable corporate lawyer, it is imperative that you understand what your company does and how the company does it. Understanding your business partners’ operational functions and business goals will enable you to creatively apply the law and develop relevant legal solutions.

·         Develop Relationships with Business Partners. In-house attorneys and their business partners often work in close proximity. Make the effort to stop by, ask questions, and attend business meetings. Your collaborative efforts will not only forge relationships but will help you learn the business.

·         Cultivate Trust. Learning the business and developing relationships will inevitably invite your business partners’ trust and confidence in your judgment and counsel. Show them that you understand their needs and they will in turn seek your guidance.

·         Invest in Your Professional Development. Once you have a solid relationship with your business partners and understand their strategy, stay on top of your own professional development. Join corporate practice groups and attend corporate counsel CLEs and conferences. Take time to “talk shop” with other in-house lawyers and learn from their experiences.

·         Capitalize on Access to Outside Counsel. Corporations are often advised by subject matter experts from law firms. Utilize access to these skilled professionals to learn the law relevant to your practice area. Benefit from their expertise by merging their knowledge of the law with your intimate understanding of your business to fashion the customized legal advice your client needs. (Keep in mind that outside counsel’s time comes with a price tag, so use the time wisely).

·          Understand Attorney-Client Privilege. Attorney-client privilege functions a bit differently when your client is a corporation. Remember that the corporation is your ultimate client—not the individual business group you advise. Know when privilege can be invoked and by whom, and keep in mind board of directors’ and corporate directives when addressing your individual business partners’ needs.

·          Get Mentors. Choose lawyers who you work with along with lawyers outside of your practice area, outside of your company, within affinity groups, or in professional practice organizations. Get a business mentor as well to help you learn more about the organization and its enterprise.

·          Set Developmental Goals. As a first year in-house attorney, it is likely that you will be without peers, so get comfortable with having to write your own story. Sit down with your managers and your mentors and develop a career path with specific goals in mind. Have your managers and your mentors hold you accountable for staying on target.

Speak Up. Ask questions and have an opinion. You may be new to the practice of law and to corporate America, but law school did teach you to be inquisitive and to express your views. Learn to trust your instincts and point out when something does not make sense to you. Experience takes time to develop, but you can start now by setting yourself up to have the most constructive and worthwhile experience as a new lawyer.




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