The Heart of In-House Lawyering: 8 Nuggets for the Aspiring Lawyer

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Afoma Ofodile, Senior Counsel, GE Aviation in a live webinar with Oyeniyi Immanuel, of the Nigerian Bar Association, Section on Business Law, Young Lawyer’s Forum, shared on her career experience. Here are the key takeaways for the aspiring in-house lawyer.

1)  Define your interests: “I knew that my interests lay more in seeing how two people can come together to create value as opposed to the adversarial nature of litigation. I liked the idea of being a lawyer but also being close to the business in a way that I didn’t think would be possible working in a law firm. So, after I completed graduate school, the opportunity to join GE was offered and I seized it with both hands.”

2)  Interact with people in the industry: When asked if her decision to go to graduate school was influenced by her desire to work in-house, she responded, “Actually it was the opposite. During my undergrad and throughout law school, I was exposed to the court systems in England and Nigeria which convinced me that I was not keen on litigation practice. However, during graduate school I interacted with many of the General Counsels that came to the campus for meet-and-greets and that magnified my interest.”

3)  Gain some practice experience: “The belief going in-house is that one is already a good lawyer and one only becomes a good lawyer by practicing. However, be very specific about your practice journey; pick a law firm with a strong practice in the sector you are focused on. That being said, you need to pick experiences where you can get the best for yourself. In-house, there are a lot of department heads and team members who have come from years in practice, from whom you can learn the rudiments of commercial lawyering. In such instances, it might be a good idea to head in-house without practice experience. Bear in mind, though, that some companies would only hire in-house lawyers with a minimum number of practice experience.”

4)  Develop key skills: “To succeed in-house, you must understand basic legal concepts and be able to communicate them succinctly. Have substance but be brief; the point of communication is for the other person to understand what you’re saying, and while the effort that goes into the tome is appreciated, most business persons don’t have the time to interprete it. People skills are invaluable. You will find in your career that people have different perceptions of reality, and it is important to navigate those differences, successfully.”

5)  Learn to hierarchize priorities: “I think, more than our colleagues, it is the voice in our head that whispers, “people will think I am not productive” that makes us over-promise and bend over backwards, unsustainably. Know what your priorities are in your role and learn to negotiate timelines. When I got to Dubai, I was under pressure to deliver and be as fast as everyone else, but I was new to the sector and the country. Because I am committed to producing excellent work, I had to say sometimes, I am happy to do this for you but not until next week. Time and a work-life balance is needed to produce high quality work, consistently.”

6)  Build and maintain relationships: “People like working with people they know, and networking is about forming relationships. One of the easiest ways to build a network is to maintain relationships within your age bracket. I got called in 2012, in 2 years my call mates and I would be 10 years at the bar. These are the people that can refer me to potential business and career opportunities. Another way, especially if you’re introverted, is to do favours. If there is something that you can do for someone that does not cost you anything, do it; people are more disposed to being helpful if you are. Finally, ask for introductions, when you meet someone that you think is interesting, and you have a mutual friend, ask for an introduction.”

7)  Nobody knows everything, not even a lawyer: “I think one of the ways we brainwash ourselves as lawyers is thinking that we must know everything. Nobody does. So, ask questions, especially in a new role. In a senior position like mine, you have a limited time frame within which to acclimatize. During that time people will give you a free pass, you can ask all the questions, if you don’t people will assume that you know. Some of my colleagues have been in the industry for 30-40 years and at that level of experience, they speak like everyone understands what they’re saying. Don’t have a problem saying you don’t know, and the earlier you say it the better.”

8)  Leave room for new adventures: “When I worked for the commercial law firm, I specialized in energy and infrastructure and I already had a bias towards the energy and infrastructure sector because that’s where was experience in the commercial law firm was. But GE is a conglomerate, and I got to experience a lot more sectors and regions including Aviation and the UAE where I am now.”

 


The NBA Section on Business Law, Young Lawyers Association, holds weekly webinars with mentors. Learn more on their Instagram page: @nbasblyounglawyerscommittee

 

 

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