Tag Archives: Inhouse Counsel

Inside Perspective: From ‘out-house’ to ‘in-house:’ how to make the transition

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.

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Inside Perspective: the in-house counsel’s ‘circle of life’

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.

One of my favorite childhood books is Richard Scarry’s “What Do People Do All Day?”  The book is a beautifully illustrated depiction of the animals in “Busytown” and what they do for work all day.  I bet some law firm lawyers wonder what in-house counsel do all day.  When I worked at a law firm, I could never get in-house counsel on the phone.  A partner would tell me on his way out the door: “Get so-and-so on the phone and find out what they think about the draft motion for summary judgment we sent them.”  I would call and call and call and leave message after message after message to no avail. One night, the office’s night cleaning crew caught me hiding under my desk whispering pleadingly into the phone “Please please call me back. The partner is going to skewer me if I don’t get a response from you.”

What DO in-house counsel do all day and why are we so hard to find?  After much contemplation, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is what I will call a “circle of life” to the in-house counsel’s time that is just so very different than the circle of life for the law firm lawyer.

When I was at a law firm, there was really only one key period of time: the fiscal year-end. Those billable hours better be completed, in, and accounted for (with minimal write-offs, mind you) by year-end.  Associates across the world start sweating like pigs at a slaughterhouse if year-end approaches and those hours aren’t finished.

After that, the next key moment in a law firm lawyer’s circle of life is collection time.  Lawyers put away their deals and briefs, kiss the children good-bye and for a two- to three-week period of time focus on CALLING CLIENTS TO COLLECT.  That’s it. The rest of the year is pretty much a free-for-all.

Contrast that to the circle of life for an inhouse lawyer — make that an in-house lawyer at a publicly-traded company.  That in-house counsel’s circle of life is dependent on the omnipresent SEC and its various Q and K filing requirements and deadlines, shareholders who wish to be informed from time to time about certain matters and board members who kind of need to be involved at some level.  Then there are the meetings.  There are meetings in which we share information, meetings in which we plan what to do now that we’ve reviewed the information, meetings in which we decide what to do as a result of what we planned in the last meeting, meetings to plan meetings …   After all that I’ve got about four minutes left to talk to you — the law firm lawyer.  Don’t get me wrong; I need to talk to you but, unfortunately, you kind of have to talk fast.

Recently, a law firm partner friend of mine, Victor, contacted me for recommendations for an in-house lawyer to serve on the board of an organization.  I connected him to a friend of mine who serves as chief compliance officer of a global, publicly-traded organization. Victor e-mailed my friend Friday morning.  By Friday afternoon when she had not yet responded, Victor sent me a frantic email asking “Where is she? She hasn’t responded yet!!”  I sent Victor’s e-mail to my friend and chuckled when she wrote back: “We are filing our quarterly earnings today.  I have a conference call with a board member and I’m leaving in an hour to fly out of the country.  I’ll e-mail you from the airline lounge.”  Victor will tell you that I’m exaggerating.  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little but that’s fundamentally a true story.  I’m not saying that in-house counsel are the only lawyers who are busy and that law firm lawyers don’t have anything to do.  But come on. Let’s just agree that we have very different circles of life.  I’m sending Victor a copy of this article as well as Richard Scarry’s book.