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Attorneys discuss key traits of in-house counsel jobs

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

You’ve got your law degree. But that doesn’t mean your education is over – especially if you envision yourself someday working as an in-house or corporate attorney.

With a handful of exceptions, rarely do new law graduates waltz into a general counsel job. Making careful decisions now, however, could create an opportunity to move from a law firm to a corporate law position.

The right skills

Altice Altice

Kris Altice, general counsel for Shiel Sexton, said that to be a good in-house attorney, you need to be able to answer a variety of questions, and quickly.

“I have people walk in my office, and they need an answer in two seconds,” she said. Unlike working for a law firm, where an attorney may be able to tell a client, “I’ll get back to you,” Altice doesn’t have that option.

The broad knowledge that enables her to handle a variety of legal issues comes with experience. And that’s why most companies prefer to hire an attorney who has worked at least a few years with a law firm. Altice said that new lawyers learn a lot about analytical skills and basic tasks like writing a good memo in the first few years working for a firm.

Jason Schiesser, senior attorney in legal operations for Simon Property Group, agreed that law firm work is a good way to learn the skills that an in-house attorney will need.

Schiesser Schiesser

“Learn as much as you can from the partners in your firm, both in terms of substantive legal work and client service,” he said. “Companies are just not good training grounds for new lawyers.”

Schiesser said transactional attorneys tend to have an advantage in transitioning to in-house positions, most of which involve contracts and commercial issues.

When Altice was a business litigator for Ice Miller, she worked on many cases involving mortgages, construction contracts and employment contracts.

“I wasn’t drafting a lot of contracts, but I sure was arguing what was good and bad about them,” she said. That experience has helped her in creating contracts at Shiel Sexton.

Beyond lawyering

Martin Martin

Amberly Martin is vice president, general counsel and risk manager/chief privacy officer for Redcats USA, an online and catalogue retailer that encompasses many brands. She said that her background working in retail and accounting probably helped her land the legal job at Redcats.

Martin was working in the Redcats tax department in 2001 and attending law school in the evenings. When she graduated in 2002, she said the company decided to form a legal department.

“They put me in charge right out of law school,” she said. But she already had eight years of financial experience.

“One of the main objectives in my role of general counsel is to efficiently manage risk and resources. In doing so, your decisions must make sense to the business and finance side,” she said. “My tax and accounting experience gave me the skills to understand the financial risks and be in a position to explain the legal and financial impact of a recommendation.”

Altice wishes she had some background in accounting or finance so that when she’s reading a balance sheet, she could understand what she’s seeing and how it’s relevant. But she said the accountants at Shiel Sexton help her interpret financial information – even if they do make fun of her big-button calculator.

Personal characteristics

Martin said the Redcats legal team must be accessible to business customers and executives around the clock. She says an in-house attorney should be flexible, willing to work long hours, and stay calm in the face of unexpected events, like a recent travel delay she experienced.

“I was working on a project in Miami a few months ago, and I thought we were in a good position and I could come home. I got to the airport and was 20 minutes from boarding my flight when I got a call that I had to go back to the project in Miami. At that point, I had already checked my luggage, so I had to leave the airport without it and hoped that I would meet my luggage back in Indianapolis whenever I could get back,” she said. “That was certainly a unique situation, but you never know what might happen.”

Altice said her job demands patience and sincerity – she can’t be dismissive of questions or bothered by the multiple requests she handles each day. She also said that a good corporate attorney does not back down from uncomfortable situations.

“You can’t be a ‘yes’ man, you have to be able to stand up to people,” she said. “You have to know when to stand on a table and beat your chest and say, you can’t do this, this is wrong.”

Stevenson Stevenson

Naima Stevenson, director of legal affairs and assistant general counsel for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, explained that character is important for a general counsel, too.

“You need to have a good reputation, exceptional judgment and essentially have the ability to elicit the confidence of those who are on the receiving end of your legal advice and counsel,” she said.

How it’s different

Schiesser said the most obvious difference between working for a firm and working as an in-house attorney is that in-house attorneys don’t log billable hours. And Schiesser appreciates having the inside knowledge that enables him to help clients in a different way.

“As an in-house attorney, you are viewed as a valued team member instead of a hired gun like an outside counsel is. You are more likely to be consulted with in advance because that consultation isn’t going to cost the business person any money,” he said. “Therefore, you function as more of a business partner with your clients and are more involved in the decision-making process of the organization.”

In-house opportunities are not easy to come by, because many companies have small legal teams. But making connections in the legal community may be one way to transition to such a role, and that means taking the time to participate in networking opportunities.

“It pays off dividends later,” Altice said. “I think finding time to do that is critical.”•

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  1. Applause, applause, applause ..... but, is this duty to serve the constitutional order not much more incumbent upon the State, whose only aim is to be pure and unadulterated justice, than defense counsel, who is also charged with gaining a result for a client? I agree both are responsible, but it seems to me that the government attorneys bear a burden much heavier than defense counsel .... "“I note, much as we did in Mechling v. State, 16 N.E.3d 1015 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, that the attorneys representing the State and the defendant are both officers of the court and have a responsibility to correct any obvious errors at the time they are committed."

  2. Do I have to hire an attorney to get co-guardianship of my brother? My father has guardianship and my older sister was his co-guardian until this Dec 2014 when she passed and my father was me to go on as the co-guardian, but funds are limit and we need to get this process taken care of quickly as our fathers health isn't the greatest. So please advise me if there is anyway to do this our self or if it requires a lawyer? Thank you

  3. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  4. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  5. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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