Tips For In-House Counsel On ‘Learning The Business’

May 13, 2022

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“Learn the business.” This is what you will hear time and time again when it comes to providing client services as in-house counsel. While learning the business applies even if you are outside counsel, it is especially critical for in-house counsel. Interestingly, no one seems to talk about the how. Here are some of my tips, in case helpful.

Do The Work

There is no substitute for learning the business hands-on, to the extent you can, by doing the work. For example, when I first started at my company, my leader required all the lawyers to work the manufacturing line. (Don’t worry; I received training). And to date, this was the best experience for onboarding that I had. The hands-on experience gave me the context I needed to be able to tailor my legal advice to the practical constraints of the business. It helped me move beyond “you need to do x,” and allowed me to really help my clients by also including “and this is how you can do x.” It also gave me credibility because I was no longer just a “suit” advising from an ivory tower.

For you, this could look like riding with your sales force or answering a customer service call. It might look like working in a retail store or cooking in the kitchen. Of course, this may not work in all instances — but if you can, invest the time. It will pay off.

By the way, if you are outside counsel, it may speak volumes about your commitment to the relationship if you’re willing to do the same without billing it.

See For Yourself

If you can’t try the work, then do your best to observe it at the source. There is just something in seeing it for yourself compared to trying to understand it from someone else’s explanation or experience. This might look like taking a tour of various facilities and walking the floor and observing company processes in action. Or it may look like shadowing various employees in their roles day-to-day in an attempt to understand their perspective.

Listen To Subject Matter Experts

Note that I intentionally use the word “listen” instead of “talk to.” If you are able, schedule meetings with subject matter experts and take the time to learn what they do. Ask them questions, listen closely and take copious notes. Try to understand their why, their goals, their ideas and pain points. This is also helpful for relationship-building.

Follow Industry News And Publications

Learning the business is something that goes beyond simply learning about your organization’s specific business. It also means learning about the industry, the trends, and competitors. I personally find setting various Google alerts can be effective in staying on top of industry-specific news. Also effective is subscribing to specific newsletters or blogs.

Meyling Mey Ly Ortiz Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is in-house at Toyota Motor North America. Her passions include mentoring, championing belonging, and a personal blog: At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton. You can follow her on LinkedIn ( ). And you knew this was coming: her opinions are hers alone.

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