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When I made the leap to work for in-house counsel almost five years ago, I had no idea what to expect. I mistakenly thought I would perform the same job functions as a paralegal in a firm, but would not have to bill my time. Boy, was I wrong. To give you some idea of what it’s like to work in-house, take a look at my job. I work for the in-house legal department of a global corporation. We are responsible for providing advice on laws in all 50 states. To accomplish what would otherwise be an overwhelming and expensive task, our department is divided into work groups, each of which specializes in certain areas of the company. My work group represents the affiliate company that provides financing to customers who purchase Nissan and Infiniti vehicles. The attorneys I support are responsible for providing advice to the company and ensuring that the company remains compliant with all applicable state and federal laws. It would be cost prohibitive to hire outside counsel to assist with all of our legal matters, so most compliance matters are handled in-house. Our daily compliance work generally can be divided into six areas. Research. This includes researching issues related to new ideas to support sales or to enhance existing programs. My attorneys and I have fine-tuned our research skills allowing us to use several software products and the Internet to research laws in all 50 states in a matter of days. Occasionally, we may call on outside counsel with expertise in a specific area to verify our findings, but for the most part, all of our research is conducted in-house. Legislative tracking. Monitoring state and federal legislation is primarily my responsibility. I use Lexis-Nexis and the various state legislatures’ Web sites to track legislation that could affect our business. Once I find legislation that is active and will impact the company, the attorney and I work with our lobbyists to influence the proposed laws. At the same time, we meet with the affected departments to ensure that they will be compliant with the proposals by the effective date. Often, enacted legislation, such as the recently passed privacy legislation, may result in major projects for our department. Projects. Working on projects involves assisting the attorneys to help the various client departments implement a new program or to clarify our policies on an existing program. Projects may involve drafting contracts, reviewing procedures or helping the various departments to determine where legal issues may arise and how to control those issues. In the interest of resources, the paralegals often oversee small projects and report to the attorneys. Regulatory audits. As a heavily regulated business, we’re frequently subject to examination by state regulatory agencies. These examinations are handled in-house, with the legal department taking the lead in communicating with the agency about our business practices. Day-to-day operational support. On a daily basis, our department fields calls and office visits from employees in every department in the company, on any topic related to our business. Perhaps the most interesting calls come from our field staff. This group of employees is the liaison between the company and the individual car dealers who hold franchises with Nissan. The subjects of these calls vary from interpreting a contract to assisting with title problems to determining whether fraud is occurring. While the legal department’s first responsibility is to the company, we look for ways to have a win-win situation and to ensure that the dealers’ legal exposure is minimized. The continual client contact is likely the biggest difference that I see between my current and previous jobs. With other jobs, I had limited or no exposure to clients. Working in-house, I see and talk to the clients on a daily, if not hourly, basis. In many instances, I’m the client’s first contact with the legal department, since the client often feels more comfortable calling the paralegals, rather than the attorneys. These calls have allowed me to become more informed about the operational aspects of the company while simultaneously making the client feel less intimidated by the legal department. Often, these calls don’t involve legal decisions but instead involve the client looking for a neutral party with whom to discuss a business decision. In these cases, our role is more of a facilitator than counselor or legal assistant. Training. To maintain compliance with the many laws regulating our company, we conduct training sessions throughout the year. The topics vary and rotate with staff turnover but always cover changes to the law and the effect that business decisions have on legal exposure. VERY INVOLVED Each of these six focal areas is undertaken with the goal of providing the company with the highest quality of legal representation. In the process of achieving this goal, we have found that because our business is specialized, we can provide legal services more effectively and less expensively than outside counsel could do for each area. Occasionally, a company matter may become adversarial, and we then find ourselves defending our actions. At this point, the legal work shifts from the compliance work group to the litigation work group. Through the litigation group, we continue to handle as much work as possible in-house. Whether the matter originates as a demand, a formal suit or a complaint through an administrative agency, the first line of response is our in-house paralegals. Working with our attorneys, the paralegals research the file to determine past actions and how best to proceed. The paralegals correspond with the customer, opposing counsel and the administrative agency to convey the company’s position. Often, settlement of the issues can be achieved without retaining outside counsel. Of course, like all companies, we do occasionally have to retain outside counsel; when we do, the paralegal is again the first line of contact between the client and outside counsel. Whether working in the compliance or litigation area, paralegals in our legal department are involved in every aspect of company business and are relied upon to assist the attorneys in meeting the clients’ needs efficiently, while remaining within budget. I have found working in-house to be challenging but rewarding at the same time. I never expected to be involved in such diverse projects or to have such a large impact on a global corporation. Stephanie Hawkes is a senior paralegal at Nissan Motor Co.

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