The Buckets List: Relationships You Must Cultivate Throughout Your In-House Career

"Only Connect" –Howard's End

"Decisions are happening over dinner" – "The Room Where It Happens," from Hamilton

"Don't send nobody that didn't nobody send" – Old Chicago Adage

As I mentioned in my inaugural column for In the House, I will be writing a lot about the importance of relationships. Make no mistake: Relationships make the world go ‘round—even when you are in-house. You may be thinking that you got out of a law firm to get away from the networking and schmoozing, but the reality is you still need to build your bridges—they’re just slightly different bridges.

Your internal and external relationships fuel your brand, how you are viewed to the outside world and within your company. These connections can help you in your search for a new job if and when the time comes. They can also add value to the organization you are already with. Even if you think you’ll never leave your job or company (and congratulations on your gift of clairvoyance if you know that for sure!), you can find real value in all the relationships you develop, especially if they make you better at your job. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” still applies.  Who you know often connects you to what you need to know.

As an in-house recruiter and “connector,” I am constantly having conversations with candidates about their career development and job searches, always emphasizing the importance of strategic relationship-building (like you, I am very much over the term “networking”).  But with whom should in-house counsel be building relationships? Time is limited – where can they find relationships that will make the greatest impact?

The conversation always seems to come down to the specific buckets of relationships in-house counsel should cultivate. So herewith are, according to Sonya, the top 10 buckets of relationships you should focus on developing as an in-house counsel:

1.Search Firms

Yes, I know this seems self-serving, but the reality is that my executive search consultant colleagues at Major, Lindsey & Africa (and at other search firms as well) and I constantly have our eyes on the market. While you are embedded in your company, focused on your own organization, head down, doing your work, we know what is going on with other companies. We’re probably among the first people you will turn to when you are starting to think about making a move. Even if you don’t think you will ever need a new job or think you will never want to leave your company, a search firm can give you valuable information. Search firms have a lot of market insight and information — including about things like law department organization, titles, duties and compensation— that can be beneficial to you in your current role. So if a recruiter calls you, do yourself a favor and take the time to return the call (even if it is just to say politely that you are not interested and, ideally, to refer someone else).

2.GCs and Other In-House Counsel

This may be the most obvious group of connections to make: your peers. Knowing people outside your organization that are in roles similar to your own will give you perspective on the marketplace; it’s important to know what's happening out in the world. Plus, building these relationships helps you feel less isolated. These are the connections you’ll be able to vent to and with whom you’ll be able to share your challenges. And there is a good chance they’ve been where you are, so they can tell you how they dealt with similar situations. Sometimes, your peers will be contacted about opportunities that they will not be interested in. They may recommend you instead. Even if you find yourself on the other side of a deal or litigation, if you impress them, that could form the basis of a relationship. These are the people that can help you learn about and explore other opportunities (they might even be in a position to hire you or recommended that you be hired).

3.Law Firm Partners

Put yourself in the position of a company: You have a GC or in-house counsel need. Almost certainly, the first call will be to your trusted outside law firm. A lot of GCs have very strong relationships with law firm partners, and they have helped each other through the years. Developing a relationship with your outside counsel can open doors for you. When a company is looking to hire, influential partners very often get the call before anyone else. If you have a relationship with that partner, there is a good chance you'll be recommended for that position in the event they aren’t right for the opportunity themselves. If you are the big law partner, who are you likely to recommend for a job? Someone you’ve had a good experience working with and trust. Speaking from personal experience as a former law firm partner, I know that the partner will suggest the in-house counsel they respect and are friends with — and who will likely pick their firm as a future client. So it’s critical to both sides to maintain this relationship. Outside of the job search scenario, law firm partners are also terrific resources for general career development: They can provide information, make sure you get an invitation to events where you can meet new people, invite you to speak on their panels, collaborate with you on articles, make introductions for you, nominate you for awards, and other opportunities that will build your brand. This can truly be a mutually beneficial relationship throughout your career.

4.The “Non-Lawyers” (HR, Others in the C-Suite and Board Members)

Most people tend to make friends most easily within their obvious peer group and comfort zone (i.e., with other lawyers), and as we know, lawyers aren’t always the most popular folks. But reaching outside your comfort zone to others in your organization can have great value. Today, companies want a “lawyer plus”—someone who can think strategically, talk business, connect and relate meaningfully and add value across departments, not just within legal. Building mutual trust and respect and talking shop with the non-lawyers both inside and outside of your company will help you improve your EQ and way of looking at business. Also, these people (the CFO, CHRO, etc.) are often the ones making the hiring decisions for the next GC; it’s not generally the current GC hiring his or her replacement (although he or she can certainly be helpful and influential. Refer back to no. 2 above). So you need to cultivate relationships with these influencers both inside and outside of your company to build your knowledge, savvy and network of possibilities.

5.Industry Leaders and Associations

As this is an article for In the House, this bullet point might also seem self-serving, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I understand the desire to just focus on the work as an in-house counsel, but the reality is that you need to be social and “plugged in.” Relationship building skills are extremely important, not to make money as law firm lawyers do, but to develop within your company and industry. To help with this, connect with the people that are part of the business of law. These are the people who are writing, thinking about the legal industry, being strategic, spotting trends, addressing challenges, forecasting the future and doing so in a manner and place where you have an opportunity to network with other people (who are like you and not). You should do this in real life and online. Industry and association events, distribution lists and relationships help you keep your finger on the pulse of the business of law for the benefit of your company as well as for your own edification. Knowing the people leading these organizations can give you great perspective and expose you to writing, relationship-building and speaking opportunities to help develop your skills and build your base of knowledge and personal brand.

6.The Media

If you are in a consumer, client, patient or other public-facing company, knowledge of and strategically chosen connections with traditional and social media can be particularly useful to your role. That’s especially true if you are a general counsel or senior lawyer in your organization. If you have a good relationship with reporters/writers, they are going to call upon you to be a spokesperson for your company. Your media relationships will be of value to your organization if you are being interviewed for positive stories about the company (and they give you the chance to tell your company’s side of the story in negative situations — always working with your company’s communications and marketing teams, of course). It will also establish your personal brand as a positive representative of the company and an expert in your subject matter. This is next-level strategy!

7.School Alumni

Ah, your alma mater, the ties that bind. We all bring up our alma mater in conversation in the workplace, whether it’s because our team won the big game or as a common denominator with others. That common denominator is often your foot in the door because people like to do business with people they like — and they are inclined to like you if you attended the same school. This isn’t about the quality of your education. Alumni networks form extensive connections, which result in a predisposition for others to like you because of this association. Sharing a school in common is a way of forming a bond, and it can be platform that will allow you to reach out to other companies simply because you went to same school. Personally, many of my opportunities both as a practicing attorney and as a recruiter have come because of my school connections (Go Hornets! Go Big Red!). A common alma mater turns a cold call into a warm touch. You never know when those ties that bind will lead to valuable information, connections and opportunities for you.

8.Employment Alumni

Instead of adhering to the old, scorched-earth mentality towards departing employees, more and more large companies and law firms are starting alumni groups. A good example of this is the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. They’ve created an alumni group at their firm to keep their alums close, providing them with resources and networking opportunities, and leaving the door open in case someone might want to come back to the firm or, yes, even become a client. Often, being an alum of certain firms is a connection similar to your college and law school shared ties. As with education, if you practiced where I practiced, I may regard you more highly because I have a sense of what kind of training and exposure you are likely to have had and what culture you are likely to fit into. Plus, as with schools, you may just stir up fond memories for me, softening me up to want to help you. Also, a work alumni group is a great way to establish relationships with people who can help you address challenges you may be facing (much like I said about having relationships with other in-house counsel). If a potential hiring manager or potential employee referral source knows you were once in the same firm, it can turn a cold call into something far warmer. And it can ultimately serve as a way to distinguish you positively from others.

9.Fraternities, Sororities and Other Non-Legal Associations

A fraternity, sorority or other organization (including those involving your children’s activities) can bring much of the same feeling of camaraderie as having gone to the same school or having worked at the same firm.  When people feel like they have something in common with you, they feel more of a connection, kinship and basis for trust. If you share a quality or interest with a person that they like about themselves, you are more than half way to that person liking you. For example, your kid takes part in the Jack and Jill organization, so you talk to the other parents with kids in that organization, too, and discover Bobby’s mom’s company is looking for a GC or in-house counsel. If you’ve made friends with Bobby’s mom, then you’ve made a connection in your personal life that can carry over into your professional one. Charities and not-for-profit organizations are also great places to build relationships. If you are passionate about something (meaning it’s worth your time and you believe in it), you can make a contribution personally and build genuine, organic relationships with like-minded people. This can benefit you professionally. For my part, I just joined the board of the Minority In-House Counsel Association (MIHCA), giving me a way to spend time with like-minded professionals who share a passion with me — advancing the cause of diversity in the legal profession. Now the members of this organization can see who I am, what I care about, how I work, get a sense of my judgment and responsiveness, see how I am at project management and problem solving, and otherwise observe the value I can bring to a situation. This is personally gratifying to me and, yes, may also make some of them want to do business with me at some point. The skills, relationships, information and perspective you gain in assisting with a business outside the one you work for every day can make you savvier in your day job. I’ve heard of CEOs actually encouraging their GCs to join the boards of other organizations for exactly this reason. Outside involvement creates relationships AND knowledge! Besides, I am terrible at golf.

10.Other Service Providers (Accountants, Doctors, Etc.)

Some relationship-savvy law firm partners pull together “Brain Trusts” or “Think Tanks” to allow people in their circle who aren’t in competition with each other to share ideas and refer business to each other. While in-house counsel don’t need to develop business, they still need relationships with these other service providers (never forget that all lawyers are service providers, first and foremost) because you never know what valuable information and connections they can offer. They may have insights that you don’t have that can make you a better lawyer in your current job. For example, if you are at a consumer products company, a marketing person can help you understand techniques that are used to sell a product. A doctor can provide invaluable insights relative to your healthcare company. And a finance person from any company can provide insight into numbers and budgeting.

Bottom line: Understanding the importance of and developing strategic relationships is about more than just being a good lawyer. You have to assume that everyone is a good lawyer with fine credentials. Heck, I'm just a recruiter, and I’m a good lawyer with fine credentials! What else have you got? You need to look for things that will make you a better lawyer and a unique one. You want to be a strategic business person with more than just a law degree to bring to the table. Your relationships are going give you insight about the world around you — not just what's going on within your company or within your industry, and not just in the law. Get out there and start connecting! Begin with people you already know and grow your circle from there. And remember to never take anyone you encounter for granted; always focus on the "give" in every encounter. One way or another, directly or indirectly, the "get" will eventually and inevitably follow. 

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