For those who choose the unique path of in-house counsel, it can be a very fulfilling career. In the Fall 2018 issue of Baltimore Law, three UB School of Law alumni describe the rewards and challenges of corporate lawyering.
Here’s another perspective from alumnus Michael J. O’Neill, who earned his MBA in Finance and his Juris Doctor from UB in 1982. O’Neill is general counsel and chief legal officer for Avnet Inc., one of the world’s largest distributors of electronic components and embedded solutions for manufacturing.
Q: What do you see as the special skills one needs to serve in the general counsel role for a major corporation?
A: It’s very helpful to have an ability to see the big picture, how one decision right now might impact other issues, currently and in the future. It’s also good to be able to multitask: The general counsel role requires juggling a lot of balls at the same time, and it’s imperative that none of those balls drops.
A third skill in this role is to be able to make decisions without having all the facts. While we’re trained as lawyers to want all the facts in front of us and then thoroughly apply our judgment to those facts, in the business world that’s rarely the case. The key is to be able to make a timely decision to move the process forward in the right direction, but to also allow for course correction as other variables become known or unfold.
These are skills that virtually any lawyer can learn or develop. Being able to sleep on long-haul flights is also very helpful!
Q: How would you suggest new lawyers go about deciding whether in-house counsel work is for them?
A: First ask, Do I want to try cases or not? Great litigators always know that they love trying cases. I didn’t — I wanted to resolve business issues.
Then ask if the specialty aspects of the law — such as IP, tax, employment law — appeal to you. These areas require a lot of training and time to become established. Aside from those, what’s left is the general practice of corporate or business law, and you need to be able to read a balance sheet and know how to build teams that drive results.
Q: What habits would you advise a potential general counselor to emphasize?
A: Truth-telling and transparency jump to the top of my list. You simply can’t survive and maintain a career without practicing truth-telling at all times. Transparency is a little trickier, but what you must avoid is the ugly O: obfuscation. Our profession sometimes makes a science out of this, and it is to be avoided and stamped out wherever you see it.
Q: Likewise, what are some habits that this potential leader should lose as quickly as possible?
A: Preambles, caveats and post-counsel disclaimers. They are all despised by business people. Speak your advice and counsel clearly and succinctly, then stand by your call.
Q: Name something you learned in law school that is still of value to you today.
A: Sweat equity will overcome brilliance and pedigree every time. Be better prepared and hungrier than the other folks. Endeavor to listen as intently as you speak, or you will end up solving the wrong problems.
You can read about the Unique Path of In-House Counsel and much more in Baltimore Law magazine online. Our cover story is on Professor Byron L. Warnken, who retired after 45 years at University of Baltimore School of Law. All law school alumni will receive a hard copy of the magazine this week—if you don’t get your copy, please contact Alumni Director Michelle Junot at firstname.lastname@example.org.