Eight Things I Learnt from Working In-House: Susan Fetterman

Susan Fetterman is currently the Content Manager for LexisNexis in NYC. She is specifically the CM for the Real Estate module where she is responsible for drafting, developing and editing practical guides in this practice area. She is the former Counsel for White & Williams and former Assistant General Counsel for the School District of Philadelphia.

Fetterman lists eight things which she learnt from making the move in-house:

  1. Understand Your Client. The first and most important thing I did after accepting the in-house position was to understand how the business (my client) operated and what its legal needs were, especially since my colleagues had never worked with an attorney on their team before. Who are the decision-makers? What is the business model? How do things get done? What are the priorities? Law schools don’t teach you the realities of business—working in-house does.
  1. Be Flexible. I joined the team as a trained real estate attorney, but quickly realised that I was responsible for a wide variety of legal and non-legal matters.  It was my job to figure out what was needed from a legal standpoint for the company, even if it was unrelated to my field.
  1. You Are An Attorney First. Once I became part of the team with my in-house employers, I was often asked to work on matters that had few to no legal aspects.  I learned that even when I was working on something that was not strictly “legal,” I could use my training as an attorney to polish written work product, advise my co-workers of potential pitfalls and contingencies, and troubleshoot from a perspective that differed from the other executives in finance, design and operations. At no time did I take myself entirely out of my legal role, however, and I often cautioned my client on business decisions from a legal standpoint they had not considered.
  1. Relationships Matter. It’s incredibly important to develop the respect of co-workers and to be viewed as a team member, pulling in the same direction. I learned to speak the language of business people and to work collaboratively. The bottom line is—your client has to respect you and to like working with you.
  1. Establish A Support Network. Working in a solo or very small legal department, I experienced many situations that were new to me. I was fortunate to have developed a network of attorneys that I could contact for advice in practices areas outside of my area of expertise. I strive to be a resource for my colleagues and in-house counsel, as I know how important that can be.
  1. Your Career Path Need Not Be A Straight Line. While treading the path to partnership in a firm is an enviable goal for many attorneys, it is not necessarily the best or only career trajectory. I have never felt that I “missed the boat” by leaving a law firm and working in-house for so many years. It was a rich experience that gave me confidence and a unique perspective that many clients value.
  1. In-House Work Is Different. Nothing in law school or working in a law firm will prepare you for working in-house (unless you had a previous career or a lengthy internship working in the business world). That doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, but you will need to pay attention, adapt and acquire a new mind-set in order to succeed. Often, an in-house attorney has few resources, so you must rely on a combination of outside counsel, your own form file, and research skills that must be dusted off and sharpened.
  1. Believe In Yourself. The transition from law firm to in-house (and sometimes, back again) can be taxing. While you’re functioning as a lawyer in both settings, it almost feels like changing careers in many respects. I relied on my skills as a lawyer, including: my ability to analyse; to write clearly and persuasively; to consider all potential pitfalls before choosing a course of action; and to allow my client to make business decisions; which all served me well in-house.

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