Tips on how to avoid being the helpful friend in a law firm and risk getting fired

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The ability to keep your company in compliance is one of the best job skills you can have. And if you have a good focus in those areas, you'll keep your job — or get a new one.

In particular, however, be on the watch for internal issues. Corporate scandals keep showing up. And unfortunately, general counsel staff tend to take the fall.

Why is this? There are numerous reasons, but mostly they revolve around the role of the attorney: oversight and professional responsibility.

When the CEO is caught backdating options, the stockholders want to know why the general counsel didn't stop it. Look at the case of Apple. It had a backdating scandal, and while CEO Steve Jobs survived, both the CFO and the general counsel took the fall.

In addition, the corporate counsel department tends to be higher-level management. Thus, it includes "juicy" targets. Furthermore, the corporate counsel is more likely than most to have the goods on the highest management (especially since most schemes tend to be run past the lawyers first), so prosecutors tend to focus on the general counsel.

So, what can you do to keep your job as a corporate counsel? And how can you show that you have learned from others' mistakes? Especially as a new general counsel, what are some good policies?

Focus on Prevention.

Don't fall prey to the temptation to help out an old friend. If you see something that's iffy, don't hide it! That's a surefire way to become unemployed. And if you get fired because you did something for an old friend, well…you are likely done in the field permanently.

Keep an eye out, and especially if you see suspicious activity, at any level, keep a record of it. You don't want to be thrown to the wolves, as it were. Besides, if a company is trying to break the law, do you really want to be associated with it?

Keep a Record.

Keep records. Chances are, with the ubiquitous availability of email nowadays, there are records that will be found anyway. So keep your own. That's always been sound policy, but it is even more important now.

Even if the company goes down, the next company will appreciate a legal counsel who kept a paper trail and gave good advice. After all, CEOs don't always listen to their lawyers.

Watch for Warning Signs.

If you catch yourself giving excuses to justify something, stop and think. "Everyone was doing it" is no defense. The "Nuremberg" defense doesn't work either — i.e., "The boss said it was okay." If you think it is too good to be true, it most likely is.

Don't be caught doing something stupid with the company. In today's climate the general counsel is likely going to be one of the first targets of the investigators. That's not a good place to be. Best of luck!

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