Which lawyers are important at large law firms? Let’s set aside for a moment the guy who controls the tickets to the loge at the Lakers’ games, and think more generally. Who matters at law firms?
First, partners with big clients. Those folks have power. They influence decisions within the firm, have the capacity to push new people into the partnership, and have work to share with others, which keeps the others busy.
Partners with clients count. Who else counts?
Great lawyers. Sometimes, you just need a really smart person to help you solve a problem for a client. Good lawyers are generally adept at identifying great lawyers. If you’re a great lawyer, your colleagues at a big firm will come to you for advice.
(Sometimes, the lawyers with big clients are also great lawyers; sometimes, not. That should be self-evident. It is, in any event, grist for some other mill.)
Who counts in in-house legal departments?
Not lawyers with clients.
Every in-house lawyer has a client — the corporation for whom she works — so attracting clients is no longer a relevant metric.
How about great lawyers?
Maybe, maybe not.
First, it’s awfully hard for business folks to identify great lawyers. A good tax lawyer can quickly identify a great tax lawyer; it takes just a couple of hours of interaction to distinguish Einstein from Bozo. But a good tax lawyer can’t identify a great dentist. The tax lawyer knows whether the dentist hurts him and knows whether the dentist seems like a nice guy, but the tax lawyer is clueless whether dental work is actually necessary and performed properly.
It’s hard to identify greatness outside of your area of expertise.
What’s the likelihood that someone in a corporate business unit — a head of sales, or a head of research and development, or someone with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering — can identify a great lawyer? Not so high.
Business folks in a corporation may not be able to identify great lawyers, so great lawyers may not automatically be in demand.
Moreover, business folks may not always want to identify great lawyers.
Don’t get me wrong: Responsible business people want good legal advice, and they will seek it out.
But a less responsible business person — the sales rep with some cockamamie, and probably illegal, get-rich-quick scheme — may not be searching for a great in-house lawyer. The sales rep may be searching for the weakest link in the legal department — the lawyer who will unthinkingly sign off on anything — who is the easiest route for obtaining any necessary “approval from legal.”
What, then, makes in-house lawyers valuable?
Two things: First, you must get along with the business folks. You must be sufficiently personable that the business people will be willing, or maybe even anxious, to give you a call. (Satisfying this requirement is particularly tough for me.)
Second, you must be a problem-solver. You can’t be widely known as the lawyer who always says “no.” In a corporate setting, developing that reputation will quickly make you lonelier than the Maytag repairman.
Instead of being the person who says “no,” you must be the person who says, “No, but . . . “. You must identify legal problems in business proposals, analyze alternative possibilities, and give the client two or three alternatives that could achieve the client’s goals with less legal risk.
That’s an attractive in-house lawyer.
Those characteristics — people skills and problem solving — that corporations value do not match up precisely to the characteristics that large law firms treasure.
If you’re considering making a move from a firm to the in-house world, you might consider how your skill set matches the implicit demands likely to be imposed by your new employer.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.
You can reach him by email at email@example.com.