Anita Wilson is VP & Chief Employment Counsel at TreeHouse Foods Inc. in Westchester, Ill., where she handles all labor, employment, benefits, ethics and compliance issues.
A few of my friends recently landed in-house gigs after working in law firms for years. I welcome them with open arms. I love working in-house. In my view, working in-house is very different from being at a law firm or being “out-house.” In order to be successful (e.g. keep your job), one must make a smooth transition. So with the appropriate pomp and circumstance worthy of such a transition, I hereby pass on these few tips to my new in-house brethren in order to help ease their transition from the “outhouse” to “in-house.”
Learn the Business. Feel the Business. Be the Business.
My first in-house job was at a global, quick-service restaurant company. In that company, lawyers were required to work in a restaurant prior to starting. I worked in the restaurant for three weeks before I started at the corporate office. It was TOUGH. Next time you roll through a quick-service restaurant rattling off various and sundry orders with and without pickles and ketchup only on the top of the bun but not on the bottom (you’d be surprised what people order), say a little prayer for the workers (like me) who work at lightening speed while waiting for you to dig pennies off the floor of your minivan. When I worked in the restaurant, I accidentally opened the back door and set off the alarm during lunch time. I couldn’t figure out how to work the register. You haven’t truly been humbled until an 18-year-old takes an order in Mach 5 speed after you’ve been trying to do it for 10 minutes. But despite all my failings, I learned a lot. I learned the procedures employees were expected to follow when opening a restaurant and learned key aspects of food safety. I watched employees assess inventory and order product. I saw how and where employees punched in and what information is featured in a time report.
Later on, while working for another food manufacturer that produced coffee, I met a customer service representative at the distribution plant in the western suburbs at 5 a.m. and delivered coffee to restaurants downtown. You haven’t lived until you’ve backed a semi-truck into a dock on lower Wacker.
The point is that when clients call me, I can better visualize and understand what they’re explaining to me after I’ve been out in and with the business. Those three weeks working in the restaurant and my day delivering coffee in downtown Chicago were therefore invaluable.
Figure out how things get are paid.
When you’re at a firm, everything is paid for by the client. You order dinner. Client pays. You research Lexis for five hours. Client pays. You breathe air. Client pays. You get my point. Once you’re in-house, of course the company pays, but find out how. Do you even have a Lexis account? If so, how are searches charged? It’s probably via a very different set-up than your firm had. What are the billing arrangements with your firms? Can you call outside counsel for everything? Do you have any alternative billing arrangements? Does your new company pay your ARDC bill or do you? Etc. Etc.
Go out and meet your co-workers.
I state the obvious but the beautiful thing about working in-house is that you’re no longer tied to the billable hour. Before your internal clients realize that your office is just down the hall, and if it’s acceptable within your company’s culture, go out and meet your co-workers. Meet as many people as you can. Take people to coffee and ask them what they do and how they do it. Ask them about their departments, their bosses and the people they supervise. And definitely find the most important person – the key computer-fix-it technician. With all of these people, listen, ask questions and take notes.
These tips helped me navigate my way through my first few days in-house at different companies. I’m sure others have different tips. If so, I’d like to hear them. Just please don’t send me back to the restaurant. I don’t plan on working that register again any time soon.