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Lawyers are in the Business of Building Boundaries

A brief conversation I recently had with an IP lawyer.

She moved in-house to one of her best clients a couple of years ago. For a time she said that things were going well. She recounted how she largely continued to function as she did when she was outside counsel.

“Matters would come up and I’d shut them down,” she said. “I was constantly managing and analyzing for risk. The CEO or another executive would have new business ideas or proposals and when they got to me I would start explaining how it was in violation of some statute or regulation. ”

I asked why and how that went over.

“It’s how law school teaches us to think right? We look for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in things. I thought I was doing my job. But being in-house is different. I could tell the CEO was getting frustrated with me and about six months in she blew up at me.”

Not exactly how you want to begin your new job. What happened?

“She said that she didn’t hire me to tell her no. She hired me to help her figure out how to get things done. If I couldn’t get my head in that place then she was going to have to fire me.”

Yikes.

“It was an epiphany for me. I had to change my mindset. In a lot of ways, lawyers are in the business of building boundaries. We counsel companies on risk and what to avoid. But companies, particular start-ups are exploring how to do new things. Now that I’m in-house I still need to make the company aware of risks and pitfalls. But instead of advocating to stay away from them, I help figure out how to get over them.”

Was it a difficult transition to get to that place?

“Yes, but it’s actually rather refreshing now that I’m here and in it. It’s a different use of my skill set, but I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity to do it.”

Risk is potential of losing something of value…a consequence of action taken in spite of uncertainty.1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risk When lawyers move in-house they still have to advocate caution. But they have to balance that with developing means for the company to take action in spite of uncertainty. It might be uncomfortable, but there is no growth without risk.

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