Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

I’ve never met Steve Susman, but he cracked me up recently.

Susman clerked at the Supreme Court, and the word on the street is that he’s a pretty theatrical guy. He was recently interviewed about the ideal candidate to work at his law firm, Susman Godfrey, and here’s what he had to say:

“Someone who’s clerked at the Supreme Court, is brilliant, and has theatrical presence. There’s a theatrical aspect to trial work.”

Ha! Susman wants to hire . . . Susman!

Isn’t this true all too often?

Years ago, when I worked at a small law firm, two partners played big roles in the hiring process. One of the partners had gone to Yale Law School, although my guess is that he hadn’t been a superstar there. The other partner had attended UC Davis, worked on the law review, and later served as a judicial clerk. Whenever we were making hiring decisions, I’d always hear from the first guy that “what matters is the school you attended, and not so much how well you did there.” The second guy would simultaneously be saying that “the top students at all law schools are basically the same; what matters is where you finished in your class.” In short, the best person to hire is . . . the person who looks just like me!

I now hear the same thing when I talk to folks about in-house hiring. The person who just barely graduated from a law school you’ve never heard of, but has worked in one industry for a couple of decades, insists that the key factor in hiring new people “is industry expertise; we need people with real knowledge of our business.”

On the other hand, the person who went in-house with great credentials, but no knowledge at all of the industry that he or she was entering, says that industry experience is terribly overrated. “We want the best athlete available. Any smart person can learn about an industry. Just give ‘em six months. We need to hire people with raw intelligence who are great lawyers.”

(If you’re wondering where unintentional discrimination breeds, I suspect one place is the subconscious mind. If many people subconsciously prefer to hire people who resemble them, it’s then an awfully short step to creating glass ceilings and a lack of diversity in the workforce.)

Personally, I’m still on the fence about this. We haven’t yet hired too many folks on my watch, so I’m not quite sure where I come down on the need for industry expertise. When the time comes, I’ll try to overcome my likely bias against requiring industry expertise that results from my having had none when I took my current job. (That bias may well be reinforced by my having spent my life in private practice as a general litigator, where we always told potential clients that “litigation is a toolkit. Good litigators can handle any kind of case, no matter what the subject matter. Industry experience is irrelevant.” Whether or not that’s precisely true is another matter, but it’s surely the mantra of the general litigator.)

I’ll be curious to hear from people who have strong opinions, one way or the other, on the “industry experience” versus “best athlete available” debate. If you choose to join that discussion in the comments, however, please disclose your bias: Based on your academic and professional background, would you be better described as a “best athlete available” or a “person with industry experience”? Armed with that information, we’ll be able to judge what you say.

I do know that, when we have our next opening in our law department, I’ll probably be looking for someone who did reasonably well in college and law school, clerked for a federal appellate judge, worked at one small law firm and one large one, and stands about 5’11″, maybe 175 pounds. If you fit the bill, give me a call. You sound just about perfect.

Earlier: Prior installments of Inside Straight


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 protected].


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