Biglaw, General Counsel, In-House Counsel, Litigators

Inside Straight: What Would General Counsel University Look Like?

I posted last week about the idea of providing training intended to give lawyers wings — to teach lawyers the skills, and give them the experiences, they need to leave their firm or corporation and move forward on a career path elsewhere. If you thought that was a good idea — if you thought that your firm or corporation might benefit by being known as the place that trained people to become great lawyers — how would your firm pursue that goal?

I actually saw this happen once: I saw a lawyer design a training program to permit him to perform adequately in another job. But the situation was a bit unusual. A heavy-hitting litigation partner at my former firm accepted a job as the general counsel of a large corporation. That guy realized that a litigator’s training has gaps; litigators know the rules of procedure and the substantive law governing cases that they’ve handled, but litigators may be ill-equipped to become general counsel. A litigator is likely to know very little about preparing securities filings, negotiating M&A transactions, advising boards of directors about non-litigation matters, and the like.

My former partner created for himself what I’ll call “General Counsel University.” He asked a bunch of our partners to set aside a half day each to give him a primer about their areas of expertise. He spent time chatting with an employment lawyer about the basics of executive compensation. He spent a half day with a public company securities lawyer, trying to learn the nuts and bolts of securities filings. He talked to M&A lawyers, spent a few minutes with the corporate tax folks, and so on. (Why was he able to do this, you ask? First, he was a heavy-hitter; people were willing to make time for him. Second, he was about to become the general counsel of what could be a very significant client; it made sense to be nice to the guy.)

Could a law firm (or the law department of a corporation) replicate this process for its lawyers generally?

Of course it could, but this would require an entirely new mindset. Instead of hoarding good work, senior folks would have to share it. Lawyers would pass opportunities down through the ranks aggressively. It’s not uncommon today for senior lawyers to do exactly the opposite — to usurp opportunities from their juniors: “Thanks for writing the brief. I’ll argue the appeal.” Or: “Thanks for working up the case. I’ll handle the trial.” And so forth.

But firms could, if they cared to, do exactly the opposite: “I know, dear client, that you retained me to handle the appeal. But my junior colleague wrote the brief, and she’s breathtakingly good on her feet. I’ll work with her for as long as necessary to prepare her to argue this appeal, and I’ll actually sit beside her at counsel table during the argument, so the appellate judges who might be influenced by my personal presence will see that I’m there. You’ll be better-served having her argue the appeal than having me argue it.”

Or: “Because you worked up the case, I want you to take the lead at trial. Opening statements and closing arguments are actually pretty easy, because you can script those more easily than you can script witness examinations. So you open and close. And preparing for cross-examination is actually easier than preparing for direct. Preparing a witness for direct involves so much hand-holding; you can prepare for cross alone in a room surrounded by transcripts and documents. So you do the cross-examinations, and I’ll do the directs.”

Can you imagine a firm where senior lawyers spoke those words? “O brave new world that has such people in’t!”

After the junior lawyer was some years — maybe five or seven — out of school, and just when she was becoming profitable, the firm would make more personal and institutional sacrifices for the lawyer’s benefit. The firm would expose interested lawyers to new areas of practice — at a sophisticated level, not carrying bags — to permit the lawyers to understand other areas of law. Maybe you’d even create short courses — lasting a day or a week — in transactional law for litigators, and litigation for deal lawyers, and so on, to expand people’s knowledge. Those courses would of course be optional, because you shouldn’t insist that folks who want to be 10b-5 litigators waste time learning about executive compensation. And you’d have to give some kind of billing credit to lawyers who chose to take the courses: It wouldn’t be generous to offer educational opportunities to associates and then complain at year-end that folks who accepted those opportunities had not met their billable-hour targets. (Better yet: Eliminate the targets. But that’s grist for some other mill.)

In a corporation, you’d think about what people don’t know, and you’d try to provide it. Interested litigators would be lent out to business units. Employment lawyers would help with securities filings. The idea would be to share whatever’s most interesting and challenging about your job with other lawyer-colleagues. Lawyers otherwise buried in business units would be invited to advise senior officers or make reports to the board.

Would that be efficient? Absolutely not.

Would that require self-confident, yet humble, senior lawyers to make sacrifices for the next generation? Absolutely.

In the corporate setting, would that require non-lawyers — corporate officers and directors — to understand the process and agree to participate? Of course.

And, finally, the bottom line: Would firms or corporations profit (in the long run) by adopting this model? I really don’t know. It didn’t hurt GE when Jack Welch turned the company into a renowned training ground. People came for the education and experience, helped GE prosper, and then moved on to become CEOs of other companies. If a law firm or corporate law department could similarly become recognized as the place where lawyers went to receive truly outstanding training, then top-notch young lawyers might beat a path to that door; stay for a while, contributing significantly during their tenure; and then be grateful to the institution after they left.

Or maybe I’m just an unrealistic fool, imagining a utopia that cannot exist in a world of profits-per-partner, sell-side analysts, and flesh and blood human beings.

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 (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at

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