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Practical Law

Critical thinking for in-house lawyers

Sterling Miller  General Counsel/HILGERS GRABEN PLLC

· 7 minute read

Sterling Miller  General Counsel/HILGERS GRABEN PLLC

· 7 minute read

More and more, in-house lawyers are asked to be “more strategic” in their work for the company. Just being an excellent lawyer is not enough to succeed. The business wants more. They want you to be “part of the business” and they want you to be “strategic” in your approach. What this really means is they want you to engage in more critical thinking. Unfortunately, no one teaches you how to do this in law school. The lucky ones sort of figure it out as they go along. The rest of us need some help. Fortunately, critical thinking is a skill you can learn.  

Jump to:

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Learn the business

Seek out strategic roles

Sharpen your financial acumen

Stop communicating like a lawyer

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Make time to think

Ask the right questions

We’ll start with understanding what is meant by “critical thinking.”  While in-house counsel needs to be strategic about legal matters, the business is not really asking you for that. They want something broader. Critical thinking is the process of systematically analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information, involving both (a) the ability to think in a reasoned and logical manner and (b) a willingness to question and reconsider your assumptions, beliefs, and conclusions. In the context of working in-house, it means that you are thinking strategically about the company and its business goals and objectives while you work, looking to do more than just spot “legal” issues. Critical thinking requires that you become a businessperson with a law degree – not just a lawyer working for a company.  

Here are the steps to help develop your critical thinking skills: 

1. Learn the business

It is impossible to engage in critical thinking without a solid understanding of the business and a) how your company makes money; b) its products and services; c) its important customers and vendors; d) its competitors; and e) its business plans and strategy. Here are some ways you can start to master these topics (depending on what you have access to): 

  • Read company strategy documents and business plans. 
  • Read all company press releases and public filings (if any). Read the public filings of your company’s main competitors. 
  • Read board slides. 
  • Ask for demos of company products and services. 
  • Meet with the heads of different business units and staff groups and ask them about the marketplace, their competitors, strategy, etc. 
  • Identify and read industry publications, newsletters, blogs, etc. 
  • Ask someone in finance to walk you through the most recent financial statements and share their thoughts about how the company has positioned itself in the marketplace and what they think it should be doing to become more profitable or a more viable competitor. 
  • Be well-read generally, i.e., read for fun and knowledge. Read several reputable newspapers every day (not word-for-word, but at least to scan for stories that might be of interest to your business).

2. Sharpen your financial acumen

Critical thinking in the business context requires a basic understanding of finance. You don’t need an MBA, but you need to be comfortable around numbers and you must understand your company’s numbers, in particular the company’s: 

  • Profit & loss statement. 
  • Cash flow statement. 
  • Balance sheet. 
  • Any measurements the company uses to gauge success, for example, “EBITDA.” 

3. Make time to think

To be a critical thinker, you must pull away from just ticking things off your to-do list and managing the operations of your team. You must carve out time each day (or at least once per week) to think – 15 to 30 minutes blocked out on your calendar to just churn on a new problem, something you have read, or whatever the case may be. As you ponder, you want to think about the business generally and about generating or protecting shareholder value.

When a new issue or problem arises, making time to really think about it and its impact on the company (good or bad) is a critical step in the process.

What is involved? Who is involved? What are all the options? What are the risks and benefits of any particular path? These types of questions help you develop deeper insights into the issue at hand. 

4. Seek out strategic roles

Try to take yourself out of situations where you are only working on legal problems, i.e., seek out roles in strategic projects. Every company has some cross-functional strategic projects going on at any one time, i.e., important projects that involve people from different parts of the business. Get yourself assigned to one of these at the next opportunity, especially if you can find one focusing on long-term planning or company strategy. You will absorb a lot just being part of such a team. Remember to work hard to go beyond your role as just a pair of eyes from the legal department looking to weigh in on legal issues. That should be part of what you are doing, but you are also trying to get looped into the business discussion/strategy as well. Be prepared, diligent, and deliver on what you promise. This will likely mean some extra work on your part, along with a willingness to raise your hand and volunteer.  

5. Stop communicating like a lawyer

Start talking and writing like a business person. This means ditching the complicated and arcane language many lawyers love to use. If you want your colleagues to think of you as more than a lawyer, then figure out how best to communicate with them. In a nutshell, you must learn to keep things simple, get to the point quickly, use charts and graphs, and back up your thinking with numbers and analysis. Most importantly, be practical. Live in the world of what is doable and what is most likely to happen and not the worst-case scenario. The sky is rarely falling and resources are not unlimited. A critical thinker understands the reality of the world around them and balances risks appropriately.  

6. Ask the right questions

To be a critical thinker, it helps to have a list of questions that you can apply to just about any problem to help you think about and consider it as more than a legal issue. Here are some questions to get you started (and you can create your own list): 

  • Who does this impact? 
  • What is the business trying to accomplish here? How can I help? 
  • Does this maximize value creation or minimize value destruction? 
  • How does this fit into the company’s strategy? 
  • If we do this, what happens in the short term and long term? 
  • What are the benefits and risks of doing this? How much will it cost? 
  • Is this something that will make customers or vendors upset? 
  • Is this something that if it becomes public or goes “badly” could damage the reputation/value of the company?  
  • Who in the company needs to know about this? 


Not everything above is easy to accomplish. But you must start somewhere. If you have a framework to work against, then over time you will be able to pull in more of the concepts and steps set out above. Start by looking at how to solve legal problems within the context of the company’s overall business strategy rather than just looking at them as purely legal issues in a silo. When you begin to think like this, you are on your way to becoming a critical thinker.

If you have access to Practical Law, you have a ready set of tools to get you started down the right path. 

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