As I’ve said previously, as in-house counsel, it’s important to be a problem solver rather than a problem creator.  You can’t be a problem solver until you know what problems the company is facing.

Not only do you need to know how business works in general (per my last post), you need to know how your business works specifically.  Whether you work in high-tech, biotech, manufacturing, or academia, every industry and institution comes with its own vernacular, history, and challenges.  This is information that you need to know to do your job effectively.

Why?  To be part of the team.  People in general want to be heard and understood.  They do not want to be lectured to from on high from someone who doesn’t have a clue about their challenges and issues.  When I first started working in-house and began visiting the various entities that made up the company, I often thought that my fellow employees viewed me as an outsider.  ‘Hi. I’m from corporate.  I’m here to help.”  The truth is that they were absolutely right.  I had no clue what they did on a day-to-day basis.  I didn’t know whether they were struggling to fix an operations  problem or being challenged by corporate to reduce costs to make their numbers.  I just waltzed in every so often to talk about IP.

As in-house IP counsel, I was completely insulated from business reality.  Lucky for me, I had a mentor to set me straight, and a boss that allowed me to expand my horizons.

To be effective, you have to get out of your comfort zone.  As IP attorneys we tend to interact with the same people all the time, engineers, scientists, R&D, other lawyers.  That’s not enough.  You get a very incomplete picture of the company.

Here’s one example of how getting out of my comfort zone helped me be a better attorney.  I had been working with the engineering department of a particular business group for about 2 years.   In all of that time, no one ever mentioned that there were only 3 other competitors in the marketplace.  How did I find out?  I attended a marketing/sales meeting.  Once I found out, I was able to help them gather targeted competitive data allowing us to avoid patent problems when developing new products, entering new markets, and plan for the future of the business.

Don’t sit in your office or cubicle waiting for people to come to you to tell you what you need to know.  Get out and mingle.  Ask your fellow employees what they are working on.  Read technology journals and industry publications.  If you don’t know what you should be reading,
ask your non-legal colleagues.

I promise you that a little extra effort on your part to learn the business of your business will pay off (especially if you work for a small or medium-sized organization.) Go from being ‘I’m from corporate I’m here to help’ to being ‘Hi I’m your attorney.  How can I help you?’  I know you will reap the benefits.