Reflections From My Trip In-house and On-site

Ryan Bowers, Contrast MechanicalFor this week’s Guest Post Friday, Musings welcomes back Ryan Bowers.  Ryan is the General Counsel and VP Operations for Contrast Mechanical Inc., a Michigan commercial and industrial mechanical construction company.  In addition to legal and operations, Ryan handles all IT and manages the Service Division.  Prior to going in-house, Ryan was a litigator at an international firm, a national firm, and a regional firm, with a focus on antitrust, construction and surety law.  Ryan is also the founder of RFPattorney.com, an online legal network and cloud RFP platform helping better connect businesses and legal departments with outside counsel.  He blogs about Construction here and Legal Marketing here

I am honored that Chris has asked me to guest post again here at Musings.  This blog is simply a wonderful combination of construction, law and technology, and if you couldn’t tell from my bio, I live squarely at the intersection of these three fields.

About four months ago I made the decision to move from law firm to in-house practice.  Although I very much enjoyed working in the law firm environment, I think working for a construction company was inevitable for me.   Add on top of that the opportunity to spend time on-site and guide the technology direction of a company, and it was too good to pass up.

In thinking about what to write about, a lot of ideas passed through my head – but as someone who blogs about legal marketing as well (shout out to my legal marketing expert wife for her endless post ideas), I decided that this was a great opportunity to share my thoughts on the trip in-house and how my views of the relationships between inside and outside counsel have evolved.

So, here are some reflections from my experiences over the last four months and some take aways for outside counsel out there….

I am not just a lawyer

This has been the hardest aspect of the transition.  As an associate at a large law firm, I was always so focused on the legal side of things (and trained to do so).   It was the only hat I wore.  Now, I have to wear multiple hats on a daily basis.  I have gained a better understanding of how business and legal decisions impact the bottom line, which is what drives most things.  For example, I used to mark up every aspect of a client’s contract.  Now, I realize that sometimes the project scope or relationship with the other party doesn’t warrant such extensive legal review.  Further, when a problem arises, I don’t jump down the legal path right away, especially in this industry.  I discuss business resolutions first, second, and third.  Only then do I start exploring legal options.

Take Away: remember that in-house counsel have to make legal and business decisions.

Outside counsel – please stand out

From the moment I announced my move in-house on LinkedIn and other online platforms, I received a flurry of messages from colleagues, law school classmates, fraternity brothers, etc.  Most were congratulatory, and understandably, some were looking to connect regarding future work.  I would have done the same, and have in the past.  But they start to blend together – experience, victories, etc.   You need to highlight what specifically about you makes you right for the needs of my company.  Honestly, I prefer a niche practitioner.  Maybe with bet-the-company litigation it would be different, but if I need a surety lawyer, I want a surety lawyer.

Take Away: know why you are different, know your value proposition, and be able to succinctly state it.  This is harder than it seems.  Hint: it is not that “you are a great lawyer.”

Know my business AND where it is going

Although this one is related to my prior point, I think it bears a separate discussion.  One of the most important things to me now is that you know my industry – this is a point of differentiation for outside counsel.   And, it means even more if you keep me updated regarding key developments.  I have realized that I simply cannot track legal developments like I used to – I don’t have the time or resources.  Do this for me and you get an A.   Going even further, and I think this is overlooked – keep me updated regarding where my industry is headed.  For example, re construction, LEED related developments or changes in labor laws.  Do this and you get an A+.

Take Away: don’t just say that you have a certain niche expertise (the internet has made it too easy to find the truth), actually have the expertise.

Matter management is important

I know first-hand that there are certain aspects of legal work that can be tremendous time sucks.  I don’t just care about the final result; I also care about how that result is achieved.  When you come to discuss potential work, I want to talk as much about how the matter will be handled as the result.  Team structure, client communication, incremental budgets, etc.  Also, I love innovation and technology utilization.  There are many free or low cost apps and cloud services out there.  Use them.

Take Away:  start thinking about your approach to matter management and ideas for efficiency.  I will ask about it.

Alternative fees are appreciated

Although this seems to be a hot topic around the legal blogosphere, I have enough experience to know that there are some times when hourly billings are the right structure.  But alternative fees are appreciated when the situation warrants.

Take away: have this as an option

As always, Ryan and I welcome your comments below.  Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Fridays at Construction Law Musings.

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3 Responses to Reflections From My Trip In-house and On-site
  1. Matt Bouchard
    Twitter:
    October 8, 2012 | 12:01 PM

    Thanks for your insights and perspectives, Ryan. Invaluable stuff.
    Matt Bouchard recently posted..Court of Appeals: Contractors’ Lien Claim Properly Dismissed Where “Owner” Owned Nothing on Date of 1st FurnishingMy Profile

  2. [...] I had the honor last week of guest posting over at Christopher Hill’s wonderful construction law blog, Construction Law Musings, where I shared my thoughts on my recent move from law firm to in-house practice and how my views of the inside / outside counsel relationship have evolved.  Hopefully my insights will be helpful.  You can view my post here. [...]

  3. Jennifer Watt
    October 29, 2012 | 11:08 PM

    Great post, as usual, Ryan! Wonderful and practical tips.

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About Musings

I am a construction lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, a LEED AP, and have been nominated by my peers to Virginia's Legal Elite in Construction Law on multiple occasions. I provide advice and assistance with mechanic's liens, contract review and consulting, occupational safety issues (VOSH and OSHA), and risk management for construction professionals.

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