In 14 years of parachuting lawyers into in-house legal teams around the world, our LOD lawyers have completed more than 5,000 different secondment assignments. So, we’ve come to appreciate the art of how lawyers can consistently ‘hit the ground running’ whilst maintaining the energy that we all need from our work.
We use the term art because there is a real skill in making a positive impact in your first few days. And it’s not something taught at law school or even particularly well in traditional private practice law firms. Looking at our most successful secondments, a pattern emerges around the areas to focus on during your onboarding period. We’ve chosen the top 3, which are also relevant in the current remote working environment.
1. Know the organisation you’re joining
This sounds simple but it’s not easy to get quickly under the skin of a business. Questions to ask yourself: What are its objectives? What’s the revenue model? What are the industry trends to be aware of? And what role do you need to play to help achieve these? While your job description should spell out the official scope of your responsibilities, it’s communication with others in the team that will give you true enlightenment. Use early conversations to determine what you’ll be focusing on. Then you can concentrate on the crucial projects and goals that make a difference – and that others will remember.
One of the more challenging parts of a new role is understanding who does what across the business. This can be particularly difficult if you’re put into a large, matrixed organisation where your role interfaces with multiple stakeholders. This challenge is even more pronounced in the remote working environment that many of us find ourselves in. A good starting point is to get hold of an organisational chart and begin mapping people to their functions - always remembering to overlay this with the realities that you observe in the early days of any secondment.
2. Understand the culture
Every team has its idiosyncrasies. They work together in certain ways and your job, as early as possible, is to determine their various collaboration and communication styles. While some organisations will have documented guidance on this, most of the time you just have to figure it out. If in doubt, it’s better to ask questions and not make assumptions. A handy way to do this is to find a peer near your level who can answer some of these questions. Most of all though, watch and listen to familiarise yourself with the ‘feel’ of your client. Then remember to be visible and responsive.
One of the more dramatic shifts for lawyers coming into in-house for the first time is the change in acceptable levels of risk. Even experienced in-house lawyers will have to clarify the risk appetite in a new organisation as they vary between industries and businesses. To uncover this, make sure you ask your manager to explain what the relevant risk thresholds are.
A more pragmatic and straightforward tip is to know where you can access historical legal research and advice. In-house lawyers often face similar or repeated issues – so understanding where to get the previous advice is crucial to your personal and the wider team productivity. It’s always good to avoid wasting your time on something that has already been solved.
3. Listen hard and learn quickly
You’re not a mind-reader but luckily one of the most interesting things about a secondment is the rapid learning process. It’s highly unlikely you’ll fully understand what is being asked of you every time you receive instructions – so don’t be afraid to obtain quick clarifications as early as possible. Then it’s time to adapt as you go, making the small changes to correct course as you find out new things.
This flexibility is one of the joys that come with a secondment. Unlike permanent employees, you’re not burdened by long term organisational goals, past history or internal politics. Instead, you have the opportunity for new experiences, new relationships and surprises to explore. Regular jobs can come burdened with expectation at the start but secondments are largely free from that. They might not be your perfect role (really, is anything ever?) but somewhere within the work, the people and the organisation, every secondment has lots to love. And then just when you’re getting a bit too used to it all, it’s time for the next thing.
Simon Harper is co-founder of LOD